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

Chapter 6.

The Dulwich Gallery.

Sandy Mackaye received me in a characteristic way — growled at me for half an hour for quarrelling with my mother, and when I was at my wit’s end, suddenly offered me a bed in his house and the use of his little sitting-room — and, bliss too great to hope! of his books also; and when I talked of payment, told me to hold my tongue and mind my own business. So I settled myself at once; and that very evening he installed himself as my private tutor, took down a Latin book, and set me to work on it.

“An’ mind ye, laddie,” said he, half in jest and half in earnest, “gin I find ye playing truant, and reading a’ sorts o’ nonsense instead of minding the scholastic methods and proprieties, I’ll just bring ye in a bill at the year’s end o’ twa guineas a week for lodgings and tuition, and tak’ the law o’ ye; so mind and read what I tell ye. Do you comprehend noo?”

I did comprehend, and obeyed him, determining to repay him some day — and somehow — how I did not very clearly see. Thus I put myself more or less into the old man’s power; foolishly enough the wise world will say. But I had no suspicion in my character; and I could not look at those keen grey eyes, when, after staring into vacancy during some long preachment, they suddenly flashed round at me, and through me, full of fun and quaint thought, and kindly earnestness, and fancy that man less honest than his face seemed to proclaim him.

By-the-by, I have as yet given no description of the old eccentric’s abode — an unpardonable omission, I suppose, in these days of Dutch painting and Boz. But the omission was correct, both historically and artistically, for I had as yet only gone to him for books, books, nothing but books; and I had been blind to everything in his shop but that fairy-land of shelves, filled, in my simple fancy, with inexhaustible treasures, wonder-working, omnipotent, as the magic seal of Solomon.

It was not till I had been settled and at work for several nights in his sanctum, behind the shop, that I began to become conscious what a strange den that sanctum was.

It was so dark, that without a gaslight no one but he could see to read there, except on very sunny days. Not only were the shelves which covered every inch of wall crammed with books and pamphlets, but the little window was blocked up with them, the floor was piled with bundles of them, in some places three feet deep, apparently in the wildest confusion — though there was some mysterious order in them which he understood, and symbolized, I suppose, by the various strange and ludicrous nicknames on their tickets — for he never was at fault a moment if a customer asked for a book, though it were buried deep in the chaotic stratum. Out of this book alluvium a hole seemed to have been dug near the fireplace, just big enough to hold his arm-chair and a table, book-strewn like everything else, and garnished with odds and ends of MSS., and a snuffer-tray containing scraps of half-smoked tobacco, “pipe-dottles,” as he called them, which were carefully resmoked over and over again, till nothing but ash was left. His whole culinary utensils — for he cooked as well as eat in this strange hole — were an old rusty kettle, which stood on one hob, and a blue plate which, when washed, stood on the other. A barrel of true Aberdeen meal peered out of a corner, half buried in books, and a “keg o’ whusky, the gift o’ freens,” peeped in like case out of another.

This was his only food. “It was a’ poison,” he used to say, “in London. Bread full o’ alum and bones, and sic filth — meat over-driven till it was a’ braxy — water sopped wi’ dead men’s juice. Naething was safe but gude Scots parrich and Athol brose.” He carried his water-horror so far as to walk some quarter of a mile every morning to fill his kettle at a favourite pump. “Was he a cannibal, to drink out o’ that pump hard-by, right under the kirkyard?” But it was little he either ate or drank — he seemed to live upon tobacco. From four in the morning till twelve at night, the pipe never left his lips, except when he went into the outer shop. “It promoted meditation, and drove awa’ the lusts o’ the flesh. Ech! it was worthy o’ that auld tyrant, Jamie, to write his counter-blast to the poor man’s freen! The hypocrite! to gang preaching the virtues o’ evil-savoured smoke ‘ad dæmones abigendos — and then rail again tobacco, as if it was no as gude for the purpose as auld rags and horn shavings!”

Sandy Mackaye had a great fancy for political caricatures, rows of which, there being no room for them on the walls, hung on strings from the ceiling — like clothes hung out to dry — and among them dangled various books to which he had taken an antipathy, principally High Tory and Benthamite, crucified, impaled through their covers, and suspended in all sorts of torturing attitudes. Among them, right over the table, figured a copy of Icon Basilike dressed up in a paper shirt, all drawn over with figures of flames and devils, and surmounted by a peaked paper cap, like a victim at an auto-da-fé. And in the midst of all this chaos grinned from the chimney-piece, among pipes and pens, pinches of salt and scraps of butter, a tall cast of Michael Angelo’s well-known skinless model — his pristine white defaced by a cap of soot upon the top of his scalpless skull, and every muscle and tendon thrown into horrible relief by the dirt which had lodged among the cracks. There it stood, pointing with its ghastly arm towards the door, and holding on its wrist a label with the following inscription:—

Here stand I, the working man,

Get more off me if you can.

I questioned Mackaye one evening about those hanged and crucified books, and asked him if he ever sold any of them.

“Ou, ay,” he said; “if folks are fools enough to ask for them, I’ll just answer a fool according to his folly.”

“But,” I said, “Mr. Mackaye, do you think it right to sell books of the very opinions of which you disapprove so much?”

“Hoot, laddie, it’s just a spoiling o’ the Egyptians; so mind yer book, and dinna tak in hand cases o’ conscience for ither folk. Yell ha’ wark eneugh wi’ yer ain before ye’re dune.”

And he folded round his knees his Joseph’s coat, as he called it, an old dressing-gown with one plaid sleeve, and one blue one, red shawl-skirts, and a black broadcloth back, not to mention, innumerable patches of every imaginable stuff and colour, filled his pipe, and buried his nose in “Harrington’s Oceana.” He read at least twelve hours every day of his life, and that exclusively old history and politics, though his favourite books were Thomas Carlyle’s works. Two or three evenings in the week, when he had seen me safe settled at my studies, he used to disappear mysteriously for several hours, and it was some time before I found out, by a chance expression, that he was attending some meeting or committee of working-men. I begged him to take me there with him. But I was stopped by a laconic answer —

“When ye’re ready.”

“And when shall I be ready, Mr. Mackaye?”

“Read yer book till I tell ye.”

And he twisted himself into his best coat, which had once been black, squeezed on his little Scotch cap, and went out.

 

I now found myself, as the reader may suppose, in an element far more congenial to my literary tastes, and which compelled far less privation of sleep and food in order to find time and means for reading; and my health began to mend from the very first day. But the thought of my mother haunted me; and Mackaye seemed in no hurry to let me escape from it, for he insisted on my writing to her in a penitent strain, informing her of my whereabouts, and offering to return home if she should wish it. With feelings strangely mingled between the desire of seeing her again and the dread of returning to the old drudgery of surveillance, I sent the letter, and waited the whole week without any answer. At last, one evening, when I returned from work, Sandy seemed in a state of unusual exhilaration. He looked at me again and again, winking and chuckling to himself in a way which showed me that his good spirits had something to do with my concerns: but he did not open on the subject till I had settled to my evening’s reading. Then, having brewed himself an unusually strong mug of whisky-toddy, and brought out with great ceremony a clean pipe, he commenced.

“Alton, laddie, I’ve been fiechting Philistines for ye the day.”

“Ah! have you heard from my mother?”

“I wadna say that exactly; but there’s been a gran bailie body wi’ me that calls himsel’ your uncle, and a braw young callant, a bairn o’ his, I’m thinking.”

“Ah! that’s my cousin — George; and tell me — do tell me, what you said to them.”

“Ou — that’ll be mair concern o’ mine than o’ yourn. But ye’re no going back to your mither.”

My heart leapt up with — joy; there is no denying it — and then I burst into tears.

“And she won’t see me? Has she really cast me off?”

“Why, that’ll be verra much as ye prosper, I’m thinking. Ye’re an unaccreedited hero, the noo, as Thomas Carlyle has it. ‘But gin ye do weel by yoursel’, saith the Psalmist, ‘ye’ll find a’ men speak well o’ ye’— if ye gang their gate. But ye’re to gang to see your uncle at his shop o’ Monday next, at one o’clock. Now stint your greeting, and read awa’.”

On the next Monday I took a holiday, the first in which I had ever indulged myself; and having spent a good hour in scrubbing away at my best shoes and Sunday suit, started, in fear and trembling, for my uncle’s “establishment.”

I was agreeably surprised, on being shown into the little back office at the back of the shop, to meet with a tolerably gracious reception from the good-natured Mammonite. He did not shake hands with me, it is true; — was I not a poor relation? But he told me to sit down, commended me for the excellent character which he had of me both from my master and Mackaye, and then entered on the subject of my literary tastes. He heard I was a precious clever fellow. No wonder, I came of a clever stock; his poor dear brother had plenty of brains for everything but business. “And you see, my boy” (with a glance at the big ledgers and busy shop without), “I knew a thing or two in my time, or I should not have been here. But without capital, I think brains a curse. Still we must make the best of a bad matter; and if you are inclined to help to raise the family name — not that I think much of book writers myself — poor starving devils, half of them — but still people do talk about them — and a man might get a snug thing as newspaper editor, with interest; or clerk to something or other — always some new company in the wind now — and I should have no objection, if you seemed likely to do us credit, to speak a word for you. I’ve none of your mother’s confounded puritanical notions, I can tell you; and, what’s more, I have, thank Heaven, as fine a city connexion as any man. But you must mind and make yourself a good accountant — learn double entry on the Italian method — that’s a good practical study; and if that old Sawney is soft enough to teach you other things gratis, he may as well teach you that too. I’ll bet he knows something about it — the old Scotch fox. There now — that’ll do — there’s five shillings for you — mind you don’t lose them — and if I hear a good account of you, why, perhaps — but there’s no use making promises.”

At this moment a tall handsome young man, whom I did not at first recognize as my cousin George, swung into the office, and shook me cordially by the hand.

“Hullo, Alton, how are you? Why, I hear you’re coming out as a regular genius — breaking out in a new place, upon my honour! Have you done with him, governor?”

“Well, I think I have. I wish you’d have a talk with him, my boy. I’m sorry I can’t see more of him, but I have to meet a party on business at the West-end at two, and Alderman Tumbril and family dine with us this evening, don’t they? I think our small table will be full.”

“Of course it will. Come along with me, and we’ll have a chat in some quiet out-of-the-way place. This city is really so noisy that you can’t hear your own ears, as our dean says in lecture.”

So he carried me off, down back streets and alleys, a little puzzled at the extreme cordiality of his manner. Perhaps it sprung, as I learned afterward to suspect, from his consistent and perpetual habit of ingratiating himself with every one whom he approached. He never cut a chimney-sweep if he knew him. And he found it pay. The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.

Perhaps it sprung also, as I began to suspect in the first hundred yards of our walk, from the desire of showing off before me the university clothes, manners, and gossip, which he had just brought back with him from Cambridge.

I had not seen him more than three or four times in my life before, and then he appeared to me merely a tall, handsome, conceited, slangy boy. But I now found him much improved — in all externals at least. He had made it his business, I knew, to perfect himself in all athletic pursuits which were open to a Londoner. As he told me that day — he found it pay, when one got among gentlemen. Thus he had gone up to Cambridge a capital skater, rower, pugilist — and billiard player. Whether or not that last accomplishment ought to be classed in the list of athletic sports, he contrived, by his own account, to keep it in that of paying ones. In both these branches he seemed to have had plenty of opportunities of distinguishing himself at college; and his tall, powerful figure showed the fruit of these exercises in a stately and confident, almost martial, carriage. Something jaunty, perhaps swaggering, remained still in his air and dress, which yet sat not ungracefully on him; but I could see that he had been mixing in society more polished and artificial than that to which we had either of us been accustomed, and in his smart Rochester, well-cut trousers, and delicate French boots, he excited, I will not deny it, my boyish admiration and envy.

“Well,” he said, as soon as we were out of the shop, “which way? Got a holiday? And how did you intend to spend it?”

“I wanted very much,” I said, meekly, “to see the pictures at the National Gallery.”

“Oh! ah! pictures don’t pay; but, if you like — much better ones at Dulwich — that’s the place to go to — you can see the others any day — and at Dulwich, you know, they’ve got — why let me see —” And he ran over half-a-dozen outlandish names of painters, which, as I have never again met with them, I am inclined on the whole to consider as somewhat extemporaneous creations. However, I agreed to go.

“Ah! capital — very nice quiet walk, and convenient for me — very little out of my way home. I’ll walk there with you.”

“One word for your neighbour and two for yourself,” thought I; but on we walked. To see good pictures had been a long cherished hope of mine. Everything beautiful in form or colour was beginning of late to have an intense fascination for me. I had, now that I was emancipated, gradually dared to feed my greedy eyes by passing stares into the print-shop windows, and had learnt from them a thousand new notions, new emotions, new longings after beauties of Nature, which seemed destined never to be satisfied. But pictures, above all, foreign ones, had been in my mother’s eyes, Anathema Maranatha, as vile Popish and Pagan vanities, the rags of the scarlet woman no less than the surplice itself — and now, when it came to the point, I hesitated at an act of such awful disobedience, even though unknown to her. My cousin, however, laughed down my scruples, told me I was out of leading-strings now, and, which was true enough, that it was “a —— deal better to amuse oneself in picture galleries without leave, than live a life of sneaking and lying under petticoat government, as all home-birds were sure to do in the long-run.” And so I went on, while my cousin kept up a running fire of chat the whole way, intermixing shrewd, bold observations upon every woman who passed, with sneers at the fellows of the college to which we were going — their idleness and luxury — the large grammar-school which they were bound by their charter to keep up, and did not — and hints about private interest in high quarters, through which their wealthy uselessness had been politely overlooked, when all similar institutions in the kingdom were subject to the searching examination of a government commission. Then there were stories of boat-races and gay noblemen, breakfast parties, and lectures on Greek plays flavoured with a spice of Cambridge slang, all equally new to me — glimpses into a world of wonders, which made me feel, as I shambled along at his side, trying to keep step with his strides, more weakly and awkward and ignorant than ever.

We entered the gallery. I was in a fever of expectation.

The rich sombre light of the rooms, the rich heavy warmth of the stove-heated air, the brilliant and varied colouring and gilded frames which embroidered the walls, the hushed earnestness of a few artists, who were copying, and the few visitors who were lounging from picture to picture, struck me at once with mysterious awe. But my attention was in a moment concentrated on one figure opposite to me at the furthest end. I hurried straight towards it. When I had got half-way up the gallery I looked round for my cousin. He had turned aside to some picture of a Venus which caught my eye also, but which, I remember now, only raised in me then a shudder and a blush, and a fancy that the clergymen must be really as bad as my mother had taught me to believe, if they could allow in their galleries pictures of undressed women. I have learnt to view such things differently now, thank God. I have learnt that to the pure all things are pure. I have learnt the meaning of that great saying — the foundation of all art, as well as all modesty, all love, which tells us how “the man and his wife were both naked, and not ashamed.” But this book is the history of my mental growth; and my mistakes as well as my discoveries are steps in that development, and may bear a lesson in them.

How I have rambled! But as that day was the turning-point of my whole short life, I may be excused for lingering upon every feature of it.

Timidly, but eagerly, I went up to the picture, and stood entranced before it. It was Guido’s St. Sebastian. All the world knows the picture, and all the world knows, too, the defects of the master, though in this instance he seems to have risen above himself, by a sudden inspiration, into that true naturalness, which is the highest expression of the Spiritual. But the very defects of the picture, its exaggeration, its theatricality, were especially calculated to catch the eye of a boy awaking out of the narrow dulness of Puritanism. The breadth and vastness of light and shade upon those manly limbs, so grand and yet so delicate, standing out against the background of lurid night, the helplessness of the bound arms, the arrow quivering in the shrinking side, the upturned brow, the eyes in whose dark depths enthusiastic faith seemed conquering agony and shame, the parted lips, which seemed to ask, like those martyrs in the Revelations, reproachful, half-resigned, “O Lord, how long?”— Gazing at that picture since, I have understood how the idolatry of painted saints could arise in the minds even of the most educated, who were not disciplined by that stern regard for fact which is — or ought to be-the strength of Englishmen. I have understood the heart of that Italian girl, whom some such picture of St. Sebastian, perhaps this very one, excited, as the Venus of Praxiteles the Grecian boy, to hopeless love, madness, and death. Then I had never heard of St. Sebastian. I did not dream of any connexion between that, or indeed any picture, and Christianity; and yet, as I stood before it, I seemed to be face to face with the ghosts of my old Puritan forefathers, to see the spirit which supported them on pillories and scaffolds — the spirit of that true St. Margaret, the Scottish maiden whom Claverhouse and his soldiers chained to a post on the sea-sands to die by inches in the rising tide, till the sound of her hymns was slowly drowned in the dash of the hungry leaping waves. My heart swelled within me, my eyes seemed bursting from my head with the intensity of my gaze, and great tears, I knew not why, rolled slowly down my face.

A woman’s voice close to me, gentle yet of deeper tone than most, woke me from my trance.

“You seem to be deeply interested in that picture?”

I looked round, yet not at the speaker. My eyes before they could meet hers, were caught by an apparition the most beautiful I had ever yet beheld. And what — what — have I seen equal to her since? Strange, that I should love to talk of her. Strange, that I fret at myself now because I cannot set down on paper line by line, and hue by hue, that wonderful loveliness of which —. But no matter. Had I but such an imagination as Petrarch, or rather, perhaps, had I his deliberate cold self-consciousness, what volumes of similes and conceits I might pour out, connecting that peerless face and figure with all lovely things which heaven and earth contain. As it is, because I cannot say all, I will say nothing, but repeat to the end again and again, Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beyond all statue, picture, or poet’s dream. Seventeen — slight but rounded, a masque and features delicate and regular, as if fresh from the chisel of Praxiteles — I must try to describe after all, you see — a skin of alabaster (privet-flowers, Horace and Ariosto would have said, more true to Nature), stained with the faintest flush; auburn hair, with that peculiar crisped wave seen in the old Italian pictures, and the warm, dark hazel eyes which so often accompany it; lips like a thread of vermillion, somewhat too thin, perhaps — but I thought little of that then; with such perfect finish and grace in every line and hue of her features and her dress, down to the little fingers and nails, which showed through her thin gloves, that she seemed to my fancy fresh from the innermost chamber of some enchanted palace, “where no air of heaven could visit her cheek too roughly.” I dropped my eyes quite dazzled. The question was repeated by a lady who stood with her, whose face I remarked then — as I did to the last, alas! — too little; dazzled at the first by outward beauty, perhaps because so utterly unaccustomed to it.

“It is indeed a wonderful picture,” I said, timidly. “May I ask what is the subject of it?”

“Oh! don’t you know?” said the young beauty, with a smile that thrilled through me. “It is St. Sebastian.”

“I— I am very much ashamed,” I answered, colouring up, “but I do not know who St. Sebastian was. Was he a Popish saint?”

A tall, stately old man, who stood with the two ladies, laughed kindly. “No, not till they made him one against his will; and at the same time, by putting him into the mill which grinds old folks young again, converted him from a grizzled old Roman tribune into the young Apollo of Popery.”

“You will puzzle your hearer, my dear uncle,” said the same deep-toned woman’s voice which had first spoken to me. “As you volunteered the saint’s name, Lillian, you shall also tell his history.”

Simply and shortly, with just feeling enough to send through me a fresh thrill of delighted interest, without trenching the least on the most stately reserve, she told me the well known history of the saint’s martyrdom.

If I seem minute in my description, let those who read my story remember that such courteous dignity, however natural, I am bound to believe, it is to them, was to me an utterly new excellence in human nature. All my mother’s Spartan nobleness of manner seemed unexpectedly combined with all my little sister’s careless ease.

“What a beautiful poem the story would make!” said I, as soon as I recovered my thoughts.

“Well spoken, young man,” answered the old gentleman. “Let us hope that your seeing a subject for a good poem will be the first step towards your writing one.”

As he spoke, he bent on me two clear grey eyes, full of kindliness, mingled with practised discernment. I saw that he was evidently a clergyman; but what his tight silk stockings and peculiar hat denoted I did not know. There was about him the air of a man accustomed equally to thought, to men, and to power. And I remarked somewhat maliciously, that my cousin, who had strutted up towards us on seeing me talking to two ladies, the instant he caught sight of those black silk stockings and that strange hat, fell suddenly in countenance, and sidling off somewhat meekly into the background, became absorbed in the examination of a Holy Family.

I answered something humbly, I forget what, which led to a conversation. They questioned me as to my name, my mother, my business, my studies; while I revelled in the delight of stolen glances at my new-found Venus Victrix, who was as forward as any of them in her questions and her interest. Perhaps she enjoyed, at least she could not help seeing, the admiration for herself which I took no pains to conceal. At last the old man cut the conversation short by a quiet “Good morning, sir,” which astonished me. I had never heard words whose tone was so courteous and yet so chillingly peremptory. As they turned away, he repeated to himself once or twice, as if to fix them in his mind, my name and my master’s, and awoke in me, perhaps too thoughtlessly, a tumult of vain hopes. Once and again the beauty and her companion looked back towards me, and seemed talking of me, and my face was burning scarlet, when my cousin swung up in his hard, off-hand way.

“By Jove, Alton, my boy! you’re a knowing fellow. I congratulate you! At your years, indeed! to rise a dean and two beauties at the first throw, and hook them fast!”

“A dean!” I said, in some trepidation.

“Ay, a live dean — didn’t you see the cloven foot sticking out from under his shoe-buckle? What news for your mother! What will the ghosts of your grandfathers to the seventh generation say to this, Alton? Colloquing in Pagan picture galleries with shovel-hatted Philistines! And that’s not the worst, Alton,” he ran on. “Those daughters of Moab — those daughters of Moab —.”

“Hold your tongue,” I said, almost crying with vexation.

“Look there, if you want to save your good temper. There, she is looking back again — not at poor me, though. What a lovely girl she is! — and a real lady —l’air noble— the real genuine grit, as Sam Slick says, and no mistake. By Jove, what a face! what hands! what feet! what a figure — in spite of crinolines and all abominations! And didn’t she know it? And didn’t she know that you knew it too?” And he ran on descanting coarsely on beauties which I dared not even have profaned by naming, in a way that made me, I knew not why, mad with jealousy and indignation. She seemed mine alone in all the world. What right had any other human being, above all, he, to dare to mention her? I turned again to my St. Sebastian. That movement only brought on me a fresh volley of banter.

“Oh, that’s the dodge, is it, to catch intellectual fine ladies? — to fall into an ecstatic attitude before a picture — But then we must have Alton’s genius, you know, to find out which the fine pictures are. I must read up that subject, by-the-by. It might be a paying one among the dons. For the present, here goes in for an attitude. Will this do, Alton?” And he arranged himself admiringly before the picture in an attitude so absurd and yet so graceful, that I did not know whether to laugh at him or hate him.

“At all events,” he added, dryly, “it will be as good as playing the Evangelical at Carus’s tea-parties, or taking the sacrament regularly for fear one’s testimonials should be refused.” And then he looked at me, and through me, in his intense, confident way, to see that his hasty words had not injured him with me. He used to meet one’s eye as boldly as any man I ever saw; but it was not the simple gaze of honesty and innocence, but an imperious, searching look, as if defying scrutiny. His was a true mesmeric eye, if ever there was one. No wonder it worked the miracles it did.

“Come along,” he said, suddenly seizing my arm. “Don’t you see they’re leaving? Out of the gallery after them, and get a good look at the carriage and the arms upon it. I saw one standing there as we came in. It may pay us — you, that is — to know it again.”

We went out, I holding him back, I knew not why, and arrived at the outer gate just in time to see them enter the carriage and drive off. I gazed to the last, but did not stir.

“Good boy,” he said, “knowing still. If you had bowed, or showed the least sign of recognition, you would have broken the spell.”

But I hardly heard what he said, and stood gazing stupidly after the carriage as it disappeared. I did not know then what had happened to me. I know now, alas! too well.

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