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

Chapter 4.

Tailors and Soldiers.

I was now thrown again utterly on my own resources. I read and reread Milton’s “Poems” and Virgil’s “Æneid” for six more months at every spare moment; thus spending over them, I suppose, all in all, far more time than most gentlemen have done. I found, too, in the last volume of Milton, a few of his select prose works: the “Areopagitica,” the “Defence of the English People,” and one or two more, in which I gradually began to take an interest; and, little of them as I could comprehend, I was awed by their tremendous depth and power, as well as excited by the utterly new trains of thought into which they led me. Terrible was the amount of bodily fatigue which I had to undergo in reading at every spare moment, while walking to and fro from my work, while sitting up, often from midnight till dawn, stitching away to pay for the tallow-candle which I burnt, till I had to resort to all sorts of uncomfortable contrivances for keeping myself awake, even at the expense of bodily pain — Heaven forbid that I should weary my readers by describing them! Young men of the upper classes, to whom study — pursue it as intensely as you will — is but the business of the day, and every spare moment relaxation; little you guess the frightful drudgery undergone by a man of the people who has vowed to educate himself — to live at once two lives, each as severe as the whole of yours — to bring to the self-imposed toil of intellectual improvement, a body and brain already worn out by a day of toilsome manual labour. I did it. God forbid, though, that I should take credit to myself for it. Hundreds more have done it, with still fewer advantages than mine. Hundreds more, an ever-increasing army of martyrs, are doing it at this moment: of some of them, too, perhaps you may hear hereafter.

I had read through Milton, as I said, again and again; I had got out of him all that my youth and my unregulated mind enabled me to get. I had devoured, too, not without profit, a large old edition of “Fox’s Martyrs,” which the venerable minister lent me, and now I was hungering again for fresh food, and again at a loss where to find it.

I was hungering, too, for more than information — for a friend. Since my intercourse with Sandy Mackaye had been stopped, six months had passed without my once opening my lips to any human being upon the subjects with which my mind was haunted day and night. I wanted to know more about poetry, history, politics, philosophy — all things in heaven and earth. But, above all, I wanted a faithful and sympathizing ear into which to pour all my doubts, discontents, and aspirations. My sister Susan, who was one year younger than myself, was growing into a slender, pretty, hectic girl of sixteen. But she was altogether a devout Puritan. She had just gone through the process of conviction of sin and conversion; and being looked upon at the chapel as an especially gracious professor, was either unable or unwilling to think or speak on any subject, except on those to which I felt a growing distaste. She had shrunk from me, too, very much, since my ferocious attack that Sunday evening on the dark minister, who was her special favourite. I remarked it, and it was a fresh cause of unhappiness and perplexity.

At last I made up my mind, come what would, to force myself upon Crossthwaite. He was the only man whom I knew who seemed able to help me; and his very reserve had invested him with a mystery, which served to heighten my imagination of his powers. I waylaid him one day coming out of the workroom to go home, and plunged at once desperately into the matter.

“Mr. Crossthwaite, I want to speak to you. I want to ask you to advise me.”

“I have known that a long time.”

“Then why did you never say a kind word to me?”

“Because I was waiting to see whether you were worth saying a kind word to. It was but the other day, remember, you were a bit of a boy. Now, I think, I may trust you with a thing or two. Besides, I wanted to see whether you trusted me enough to ask me. Now you’ve broke the ice at last, in with you, head and ears, and see what you can fish out.”

“I am very unhappy —”

“That’s no new disorder that I know of.”

“No; but I think the reason I am unhappy is a strange one; at least, I never read of but one person else in the same way. I want to educate myself, and I can’t.”

“You must have read precious little then, if you think yourself in a strange way. Bless the boy’s heart! And what the dickens do you want to be educating yourself for, pray?”

This was said in a tone of good-humoured banter, which gave me courage. He offered to walk homewards with me; and, as I shambled along by his side, I told him all my story and all my griefs.

I never shall forget that walk. Every house, tree, turning, which we passed that day on our way, is indissolubly connected in my mind with some strange new thought which arose in me just at each spot; and recurs, so are the mind and the senses connected, as surely as I repass it.

I had been telling him about Sandy Mackaye. He confessed to an acquaintance with him; but in a reserved and mysterious way, which only heightened my curiosity.

We were going through the Horse Guards, and I could not help lingering to look with wistful admiration on the huge mustachoed war-machines who sauntered about the court-yard.

A tall and handsome officer, blazing in scarlet and gold, cantered in on a superb horse, and, dismounting, threw the reins to a dragoon as grand and gaudy as himself. Did I envy him? Well — I was but seventeen. And there is something noble to the mind, as well as to the eye, in the great strong man, who can fight — a completeness, a self-restraint, a terrible sleeping power in him. As Mr. Carlyle says, “A soldier, after all, is — one of the few remaining realities of the age. All other professions almost promise one thing, and perform — alas! what? But this man promises to fight, and does it; and, if he be told, will veritably take out a long sword and kill me.”

So thought my companion, though the mood in which he viewed the fact was somewhat different from my own.

“Come on,” he said, peevishly clutching me by the arm; “what do you want dawdling? Are you a nursery-maid, that you must stare at those red-coated butchers?” And a deep curse followed.

“What harm have they done you?”

“I should think I owed them turn enough.”

“What?”

“They cut my father down at Sheffield — perhaps with the very swords he helped to make — because he would not sit still and starve, and see us starving around him, while those who fattened on the sweat of his brow, and on those lungs of his, which the sword-grinding dust was eating out day by day, were wantoning on venison and champagne. That’s the harm they’ve done me, my chap!”

“Poor fellows! — they only did as they were ordered, I suppose.”

“And what business have they to let themselves be ordered? What right, I say — what right has any free, reasonable soul on earth, to sell himself for a shilling a day to murder any man, right or wrong — even his own brother or his own father — just because such a whiskered, profligate jackanapes as that officer, without learning, without any god except his own looking-glass and his opera-dancer — a fellow who, just because he is born a gentleman, is set to command grey-headed men before he can command his own meanest passions. Good heavens! that the lives of free men should be entrusted to such a stuffed cockatoo; and that free men should be such traitors to their country, traitors to their own flesh and blood, as to sell themselves, for a shilling a day and the smirks of the nursery-maids, to do that fellow’s bidding!”

“What are you a-grumbling here about, my man? — gotten the cholera?” asked one of the dragoons, a huge, stupid-looking lad.

“About you, you young long-legged cut-throat,” answered Crossthwaite, “and all your crew of traitors.”

“Help, help, coomrades o’ mine!” quoth the dragoon, bursting with laughter; “I’m gaun be moorthered wi’ a little booy that’s gane mad, and toorned Chartist.”

I dragged Crossthwaite off; for what was jest to the soldiers, I saw, by his face, was fierce enough earnest to him. We walked on a little, in silence.

“Now,” I said, “that was a good-natured fellow enough, though he was a soldier. You and he might have cracked many a joke together, if you did but understand each other; — and he was a countryman of yours, too.”

“I may crack something else besides jokes with him some day,” answered he, moodily.

“‘Pon my word, you must take care how you do it. He is as big as four of us.”

“That vile aristocrat, the old Italian poet — what’s his name? — Ariosto — ay! — he knew which quarter the wind was making for, when he said that fire-arms would be the end of all your old knights and gentlemen in armour, that hewed down unarmed innocents as if they had been sheep. Gunpowder is your true leveller — dash physical strength! A boy’s a man with a musket in his hand, my chap!”

“God forbid,” I said, “that I should ever be made a man of in that way, or you either. I do not think we are quite big enough to make fighters; and if we were, what have we got to fight about?”

“Big enough to make fighters?” said he, half to himself; “or strong enough, perhaps? — or clever enough? — and yet Alexander was a little man, and the Petit Caporal, and Nelson, and Cæsar, too; and so was Saul of Tarsus, and weakly he was into the bargain. Æsop was a dwarf, and so was Attila; Shakspeare was lame; Alfred, a rickety weakling; Byron, clubfooted; — so much for body versus spirit — brute force versus genius — genius.”

I looked at him; his eyes glared like two balls of fire. Suddenly he turned to me.

“Locke, my boy, I’ve made an ass of myself, and got into a rage, and broken a good old resolution of mine, and a promise that I made to my dear little woman — bless her! and said things to you that you ought to know nothing of for this long time; but those red-coats always put me beside myself. God forgive me!” And he held out his hand to me cordially.

“I can quite understand your feeling deeply on one point,” I said, as I took it, “after the sad story you told me; but why so bitter on all? What is there so very wrong about things, that we must begin fighting about it?”

“Bless your heart, poor innocent! What is wrong? — what is not wrong? Wasn’t there enough in that talk with Mackaye, that you told me of just now, to show anybody that, who can tell a hawk from a hand-saw?”

“Was it wrong in him to give himself such trouble about the education of a poor young fellow, who has no tie on him, who can never repay him?”

“No; that’s just like him. He feels for the people, for he has been one of us. He worked in a printing-office himself many a year, and he knows the heart of the working man. But he didn’t tell you the whole truth about education. He daren’t tell you. No one who has money dare speak out his heart; not that he has much certainly; but the cunning old Scot that he is, he lives by the present system of things, and he won’t speak ill of the bridge which carries him over — till the time comes.”

I could not understand whither all this tended, and walked on silent and somewhat angry, at hearing the least slight cast on Mackaye.

“Don’t you see, stupid?” he broke out at last. “What did he say to you about gentlemen being crammed by tutors and professors? Have not you as good a right to them as any gentleman?”

“But he told me they were no use — that every man must educate himself.”

“Oh! all very fine to tell you the grapes are sour, when you can’t reach them. Bah, lad! Can’t you see what comes of education? — that any dolt, provided he be a gentleman, can be doctored up at school and college, enough to make him play his part decently — his mighty part of ruling us, and riding over our heads, and picking our pockets, as parson, doctor, lawyer, member of parliament — while we — you now, for instance — cleverer than ninety-nine gentlemen out of a hundred, if you had one-tenth the trouble taken with you that is taken with every pig-headed son of an aristocrat —”

“Am I clever?” asked I, in honest surprise.

“What! haven’t you found that out yet? Don’t try to put that on me. Don’t a girl know when she’s pretty, without asking her neighbours?”

“Really, I never thought about it.”

“More simpleton you. Old Mackaye has, at all events; though, canny Scotchman that he is, he’ll never say a word to you about it, yet he makes no secret of it to other people. I heard him the other day telling some of our friends that you were a thorough young genius.”

I blushed scarlet, between pleasure and a new feeling; was it ambition?

“Why, hav’n’t you a right to aspire to a college education as any do-nothing canon there at the abbey, lad?”

“I don’t know that I have a right to anything.”

“What, not become what Nature intended you to become? What has she given you brains for, but to be educated and used? Oh! I heard a fine lecture upon that at our club the other night. There was a man there — a gentleman, too, but a thorough-going people’s man, I can tell you, Mr. O’Flynn. What an orator that man is to be sure! The Irish Æschines, I hear they call him in Conciliation Hall. Isn’t he the man to pitch into the Mammonites? ‘Gentlemen and ladies,’ says he, ‘how long will a diabolic society’— no, an effete society it was —‘how long will an effete, emasculate, and effeminate society, in the diabolic selfishness of its eclecticism, refuse to acknowledge what my immortal countryman, Burke, calls the “Dei voluntatem in rebus revelatam”— the revelation of Nature’s will in the phenomena of matter? The cerebration of each is the prophetic sacrament of the yet undeveloped possibilities of his mentation. The form of the brain alone, and not the possession of the vile gauds of wealth and rank, constitute man’s only right to education — to the glories of art and science. Those beaming eyes and roseate lips beneath me proclaim a bevy of undeveloped Aspasias, of embryo Cleopatras, destined by Nature, and only restrained by man’s injustice, from ruling the world by their beauty’s eloquence. Those massive and beetling brows, gleaming with the lambent flames of patriotic ardour — what is needed to unfold them into a race of Shakspeares and of Gracchi, ready to proclaim with sword and lyre the divine harmonies of liberty, equality, and fraternity, before a quailing universe?’”

“It sounds very grand,” replied I, meekly; “and I should like very much certainly to have a good education. But I can’t see whose injustice keeps me out of one if I can’t afford to pay for it.”

“Whose? Why, the parson’s to be sure. They’ve got the monopoly of education in England, and they get their bread by it at their public schools and universities; and of course it’s their interest to keep up the price of their commodity, and let no man have a taste of it who can’t pay down handsomely. And so those aristocrats of college dons go on rolling in riches, and fellowships, and scholarships, that were bequeathed by the people’s friends in old times, just to educate poor scholars like you and me, and give us our rights as free men.”

“But I thought the clergy were doing so much to educate the poor. At least, I hear all the dissenting ministers grumbling at their continual interference.”

“Ay, educating them to make them slaves and bigots. They don’t teach them what they teach their own sons. Look at the miserable smattering of general information — just enough to serve as sauce for their great first and last lesson of ‘Obey the powers that be’— whatever they be; leave us alone in our comforts, and starve patiently; do, like good boys, for it’s God’s will. And then, if a boy does show talent in school, do they help him up in life? Not they; when he has just learnt enough to whet his appetite for more, they turn him adrift again, to sink and drudge — to do his duty, as they call it, in that state of life to which society and the devil have called him.”

“But there are innumerable stories of great Englishmen who have risen from the lowest ranks.”

“Ay; but where are the stories of those who have not risen — of all the noble geniuses who have ended in desperation, drunkenness, starvation, suicide, because no one would take the trouble of lifting them up, and enabling them to walk in the path which Nature had marked out for them? Dead men tell no tales; and this old whited sepulchre, society, ain’t going to turn informer against itself.”

“I trust and hope,” I said, sadly, “that if God intends me to rise, He will open the way for me; perhaps the very struggles and sorrows of a poor genius may teach him more than ever wealth and prosperity could.”

“True, Alton, my boy! and that’s my only comfort. It does make men of us, this bitter battle of life. We working men, when we do come out of the furnace, come out, not tinsel and papier mache, like those fops of red-tape statesmen, but steel and granite, Alton, my boy — that has been seven times tried in the fire: and woe to the papier mache gentleman that runs against us! But,” he went on, sadly, “for one who comes safe through the furnace, there are a hundred who crack in the burning. You are a young bear, my lad, with all your sorrows before you; and you’ll find that a working man’s training is like the Red Indian children’s. The few who are strong enough to stand it grow up warriors; but all those who are not fire-and-water-proof by nature — just die, Alton, my lad, and the tribe thinks itself well rid of them.”

So that conversation ended. But it had implanted in my bosom a new seed of mingled good and evil, which was destined to bear fruit, precious perhaps as well as bitter. God knows, it has hung on the tree long enough. Sour and harsh from the first, it has been many a year in ripening. But the sweetness of the apple, the potency of the grape, as the chemists tell us, are born out of acidity — a developed sourness. Will it be so with my thoughts? Dare I assert, as I sit writing here, with the wild waters slipping past the cabin windows, backwards and backwards ever, every plunge of the vessel one forward leap from the old world — worn-out world I had almost called it, of sham civilization and real penury — dare I hope ever to return and triumph? Shall I, after all, lay my bones among my own people, and hear the voices of freemen whisper in my dying ears?

Silence, dreaming heart! Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof — and the good thereof also. Would that I had known that before! Above all, that I had known it on that night, when first the burning thought arose in my heart, that I was unjustly used; that society had not given me my rights. It came to me as a revelation, celestial-infernal, full of glorious hopes of the possible future in store for me through the perfect development of all my faculties; and full, too, of fierce present rage, wounded vanity, bitter grudgings against those more favoured than myself, which grew in time almost to cursing against the God who had made me a poor untutored working man, and seemed to have given me genius only to keep me in a Tantalus’ hell of unsatisfied thirst.

Ay, respectable gentlemen and ladies, I will confess all to you — you shall have, if you enjoy it, a fresh opportunity for indulging that supreme pleasure which the press daily affords you of insulting the classes whose powers most of you know as little as you do their sufferings. Yes; the Chartist poet is vain, conceited, ambitious, uneducated, shallow, inexperienced, envious, ferocious, scurrilous, seditious, traitorous. — Is your charitable vocabulary exhausted? Then ask yourselves, how often have you yourself honestly resisted and conquered the temptation to any one of these sins, when it has come across you just once in a way, and not as they came to me, as they come to thousands of the working men, daily and hourly, “till their torments do, by length of time, become their elements”? What, are we covetous too? Yes! And if those who have, like you, still covet more, what wonder if those who have nothing covet something? Profligate too? Well, though that imputation as a generality is utterly calumnious, though your amount of respectable animal enjoyment per annum is a hundred times as great as that of the most self-indulgent artizan, yet, if you had ever felt what it is to want, not only every luxury of the senses, but even bread to eat, you would think more mercifully of the man who makes up by rare excesses, and those only of the limited kinds possible to him, for long intervals of dull privation, and says in his madness, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” We have our sins, and you have yours. Ours may be the more gross and barbaric, but yours are none the less damnable; perhaps all the more so, for being the sleek, subtle, respectable, religious sins they are. You are frantic enough, if our part of the press calls you hard names, but you cannot see that your part of the press repays it back to us with interest. We see those insults, and feel them bitterly enough; and do not forget them, alas! soon enough, while they pass unheeded by your delicate eyes as trivial truisms. Horrible, unprincipled, villanous, seditious, frantic, blasphemous, are epithets, of course, when applied to — to how large a portion of the English people, you will some day discover to your astonishment. When will that come, and how? In thunder, and storm, and garments rolled in blood? Or like the dew on the mown grass, and the clear shining of the sunlight after April rain?

Yes, it was true. Society had not given me my rights. And woe unto the man on whom that idea, true or false, rises lurid, filling all his thoughts with stifling glare, as of the pit itself. Be it true, be it false, it is equally a woe to believe it; to have to live on a negation; to have to worship for our only idea, as hundreds of thousands of us have this day, the hatred, of the things which are. Ay, though, one of us here and there may die in faith, in sight of the promised land, yet is it not hard, when looking from the top of Pisgah into “the good time coming,” to watch the years slipping away one by one, and death crawling nearer and nearer, and the people wearying themselves in the fire for very vanity, and Jordan not yet passed, the promised land not yet entered? While our little children die around us, like lambs beneath the knife, of cholera and typhus and consumption, and all the diseases which the good time can and will prevent; which, as science has proved, and you the rich confess, might be prevented at once, if you dared to bring in one bold and comprehensive measure, and not sacrifice yearly the lives of thousands to the idol of vested interests, and a majority in the House. Is it not hard to men who smart beneath such things to help crying aloud —“Thou cursed Moloch–Mammon, take my life if thou wilt; let me die in the wilderness, for I have deserved it; but these little ones in mines and factories, in typhus-cellars, and Tooting pandemoniums, what have they done? If not in their fathers’ cause, yet still in theirs, were it so great a sin to die upon a barricade?”

Or after all, my working brothers, is it true of our promised land, even as of that Jewish one of old, that the priests’ feet must first cross the mystic stream into the good land and large which God has prepared for us?

Is it so indeed? Then in the name of the Lord of Hosts, ye priests of His, why will ye not awake, and arise, and go over Jordan, that the people of the Lord may follow you?

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