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

Chapter 39.

Nemesis.

It was a month or more before I summoned courage to ask after my cousin.

Eleanor looked solemnly at me.

“Did you not know it? He is dead.”

“Dead!” I was almost stunned by the announcement.

“Of typhus fever. He died three weeks ago; and not only he, but the servant who brushed his clothes, and the shopman, who had a few days before, brought him a new coat home.”

“How did you learn all this?”

“From Mr. Crossthwaite. But the strangest part of the sad story is to come. Crossthwaite’s suspicions were aroused by some incidental circumstance, and knowing of Downes’s death, and the fact that you most probably caught your fever in that miserable being’s house, he made such inquiries as satisfied him that it was no other than your cousin’s coat —”

“Which covered the corpses in that fearful chamber?”

“It was indeed.”

Just, awful God. And this was the consistent Nemesis of all poor George’s thrift and cunning, of his determination to carry the buy-cheap-and-sell-dear commercialism, in which he had been brought up, into every act of life! Did I rejoice? No; all revenge, all spite had been scourged out of me. I mourned for him as for a brother, till the thought flashed across me — Lillian was free. Half unconscious, I stammered her name inquiringly.

“Judge for yourself,” answered Eleanor, mildly, yet with a deep, severe meaning in her tone.

I was silent.

 

The tempest in my heart was ready to burst forth again; but she, my guardian angel, soothed it for me.

“She is much changed; sorrow and sickness — for she, too, has had the fever, and, alas! less resignation or peace within, than those who love her would have wished to see — have worn her down. Little remains now of that loveliness —”

“Which I idolized in my folly!”

“Thank God, thank God! that you see that at last: I knew it all along. I knew that there was nothing there for your heart to rest upon — nothing to satisfy your intellect — and, therefore, I tried to turn you from your dream. I did it harshly, angrily, too sharply, yet not explicitly enough. I ought to have made allowances for you. I should have known how enchanting, intoxicating, mere outward perfections must have been to one of your perceptions, shut out so long as you had been from the beautiful in art and nature. But I was cruel. Alas! I had not then learnt to sympathize; and I have often since felt with terror that I, too, may have many of your sins to answer for; that I, even I, helped to drive you on to bitterness and despair.”

“Oh, do not say so! You have done to me, meant to me, nothing but good.”

“Be not too sure of that. You little know me. You little know the pride which I have fostered — even the mean anger against you, for being the protégé of any one but myself. That exclusiveness, and shyness, and proud reserve, is the bane of our English character — it has been the bane of mine — daily I strive to root it out. Come — I will do so now. You wonder why I am here. You shall hear somewhat of my story; and do not fancy that I am showing you a peculiar mark of honour or confidence. If the history of my life can be of use to the meanest, they are welcome to the secrets of my inmost heart.

“I was my parents’ only child, an heiress, highly born, and highly educated. Every circumstance of humanity which could pamper pride was mine, and I battened on the poison. I painted, I sang, I wrote in prose and verse — they told me, not without success. Men said that I was beautiful — I knew that myself, and revelled and gloried in the thought. Accustomed to see myself the centre of all my parents’ hopes and fears, to be surrounded by flatterers, to indulge in secret the still more fatal triumph of contempt for those I thought less gifted than myself, self became the centre of my thoughts. Pleasure was all I thought of. But not what the vulgar call pleasure. That I disdained, while, like you, I worshipped all that was pleasurable to the intellect and the taste. The beautiful was my God. I lived, in deliberate intoxication, on poetry, music, painting, and every anti-type of them which I could find in the world around. At last I met with — one whom you once saw. He first awoke in me the sense of the vast duties and responsibilities of my station — his example first taught me to care for the many rather than for the few. It was a blessed lesson: yet even that I turned to poison, by making self, still self, the object of my very benevolence. To be a philanthropist, a philosopher, a feudal queen, amid the blessings and the praise of dependent hundreds — that was my new ideal; for that I turned the whole force of my intellect to the study of history, of social and economic questions. From Bentham and Malthus to Fourier and Proudhon, I read them all. I made them all fit into that idol-temple of self which I was rearing, and fancied that I did my duty, by becoming one of the great ones of the earth. My ideal was not the crucified Nazarene, but some Hairoun Alraschid, in luxurious splendour, pampering his pride by bestowing as a favour those mercies which God commands as the right of all. I thought to serve God, forsooth, by serving Mammon and myself. Fool that I was! I could not see God’s handwriting on the wall against me. ‘How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven!’ . . .

“You gave me, unintentionally, a warning hint. The capabilities which I saw in you made me suspect that those below might be more nearly my equals than I had yet fancied. Your vivid descriptions of the misery among whole classes of workmen — misery caused and ever increased by the very system of society itself — gave a momentary shock to my fairy palace. They drove me back upon the simple old question, which has been asked by every honest heart, age after age, ‘What right have I to revel in luxury while thousands are starving? Why do I pride myself on doling out to them small fractions of that wealth, which, if sacrificed utterly and at once, might help to raise hundreds to a civilization as high as my own?’ I could not face the thought; and angry with you for having awakened it, however unintentionally, I shrank back behind the pitiable, worn-out fallacy, that luxury was necessary to give employment. I knew that it was a fallacy; I knew that the labour spent in producing unnecessary things for one rich man may just as well have gone in producing necessaries for a hundred poor, or employ the architect and the painter for public bodies as well as private individuals. That even for the production of luxuries, the monopolizing demand of the rich was not required — that the appliances of real civilization, the landscapes, gardens, stately rooms, baths, books, pictures, works of art, collections of curiosities, which now went to pamper me alone — me, one single human soul — might be helping, in an associate society, to civilize a hundred families, now debarred from them by isolated poverty, without robbing me of an atom of the real enjoyment or benefit of them. I knew it, I say, to be a fallacy, and yet I hid behind it from the eye of God. Besides, ‘it always had been so — the few rich, and the many poor. I was but one more among millions.’”

She paused a moment as if to gather strength, and then continued:

“The blow came. My idol — for he, too, was an idol — To please him I had begun — To please myself in pleasing him, I was trying to become great — and with him went from me that sphere of labour which was to witness the triumph of my pride. I saw the estate pass into other hands; a mighty change passed over me, as impossible, perhaps, as unfitting, for me to analyse. I was considered mad. Perhaps I was so: there is a divine insanity, a celestial folly, which conquers worlds. At least, when that period was past, I had done, and suffered so strangely, that nothing henceforth could seem strange to me. I had broken the yoke of custom and opinion. My only ground was now the bare realities of human life and duty. In poverty and loneliness I thought out the problems of society, and seemed to myself to have found the one solution-self-sacrifice. Following my first impulse, I had given largely to every charitable institution I could hear of — God forbid that I should regret those gifts — yet the money, I soon found, might have been better spent. One by one, every institution disappointed me; they seemed, after all, only means for keeping the poor in their degradation, by making it just not intolerable to them — means for enabling Mammon to draw fresh victims into his den, by taking off his hands those whom he had already worn out into uselessness. Then I tried association among my own sex — among the most miserable and degraded of them. I simply tried to put them into a position in which they might work for each other, and not for a single tyrant; in which that tyrant’s profits might be divided among the slaves themselves. Experienced men warned me that I should fail; that such a plan would be destroyed by the innate selfishness and rivalry of human nature; that it demanded what was impossible to find, good faith, fraternal love, overruling moral influence. I answered, that I knew that already; that nothing but Christianity alone could supply that want, but that it could and should supply it; that I would teach them to live as sisters, by living with them as their sister myself. To become the teacher, the minister, the slave of those whom I was trying to rescue, was now my one idea; to lead them on, not by machinery, but by precept, by example, by the influence of every gift and talent which God had bestowed upon me; to devote to them my enthusiasm, my eloquence, my poetry, my art, my science; to tell them who had bestowed their gifts on me, and would bestow, to each according to her measure, the same on them; to make my workrooms, in one word, not a machinery, but a family. And I have succeeded — as others will succeed, long after my name, my small endeavours, are forgotten amid the great new world — new Church I should have said — of enfranchised and fraternal labour.”

And this was the suspected aristocrat! Oh, my brothers, my brothers! little you know how many a noble soul, among those ranks which you consider only as your foes, is yearning to love, to help, to live and die for you, did they but know the way! Is it their fault if God has placed them where they are? Is it their fault, if they refuse to part with their wealth, before they are sure that such a sacrifice would really be a mercy to you? Show yourselves worthy of association. Show that you can do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God, as brothers before one Father, subjects of one crucified King — and see then whether the spirit of self-sacrifice is dead among the rich! See whether there are not left in England yet seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Mammon, who will not fear to “give their substance to the free,” if they find that the Son has made you free — free from your own sins, as well as from the sins of others!

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