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

Chapter 12.


When I started again next morning, I found myself so stiff and footsore, that I could hardly put one leg before the other, much less walk upright. I was really quite in despair, before the end of the first mile; for I had no money to pay for a lift on the coach, and I knew, besides, that they would not be passing that way for several hours to come. So, with aching back and knees, I made shift to limp along, bent almost double, and ended by sitting down for a couple of hours, and looking about me, in a country which would have seemed dreary enough, I suppose, to any one but a freshly-liberated captive, such as I was. At last I got up and limped on, stiffer than ever from my rest, when a gig drove past me towards Cambridge, drawn by a stout cob, and driven by a tall, fat, jolly-looking farmer, who stared at me as he passed, went on, looked back, slackened his pace, looked back again, and at last came to a dead stop, and hailed me in a broad nasal dialect —

“Whor be ganging, then, boh?”

“To Cambridge.”

“Thew’st na git there that gate. Be’est thee honest man?”

“I hope so,” said I, somewhat indignantly.

“What’s trade?”

“A tailor,” I said.

“Tailor! — guide us! Tailor a-tramp? Barn’t accoostomed to tramp, then?”

“I never was out of London before,” said I, meekly — for I was too worn-out to be cross — lengthy and impertinent as this cross-examination seemed.

“Oi’ll gie thee lift; dee yow joomp in. Gae on, powney! Tailor, then! Oh! ah! tailor, saith he.”

I obeyed most thankfully, and sat crouched together, looking up out of the corner of my eyes at the huge tower of broad-cloth by my side, and comparing the two red shoulders of mutton which held the reins, with my own wasted, white, woman-like fingers.

I found the old gentleman most inquisitive. He drew out of me all my story — questioned me about the way “Lunnon folks” lived, and whether they got ony shooting or “pattening”— whereby I found he meant skating — and broke in, every now and then, with ejaculations of childish wonder, and clumsy sympathy, on my accounts of London labour and London misery.

“Oh, father, father! — I wonders they bears it. Us’n in the fens wouldn’t stand that likes. They’d roit, and roit, and roit, and tak’ oot the dook-gunes to un-they would, as they did five-and-twenty year agone. Never to goo ayond the housen! — never to go ayond the housen! Kill me in a three months, that would — bor’, then!”

“Are you a farmer?” I asked, at last, thinking that my turn for questioning was come.

“I bean’t varmer; I be yooman born. Never paid rent in moy life, nor never wool. I farms my own land, and my vathers avore me, this ever so mony hoondred year. I’ve got the swoord of ’em to home, and the helmet that they fut with into the wars, then when they chopped off the king’s head — what was the name of um?”

“Charles the First?”

“Ees — that’s the booy. We was Parliament side — true Britons all we was, down into the fens, and Oliver Cromwell, as dug Botsham lode, to the head of us. Yow coom down to Metholl, and I’ll shaw ye a country. I’ll shaw ‘ee some’at like bullocks to call, and some’at like a field o’ beans — I wool — none o’ this here darned ups and downs o’ hills” (though the country through which we drove was flat enough, I should have thought, to please any one), “to shake a body’s victuals out of his inwards — all so flat as a barn’s floor, for vorty mile on end — there’s the country to live in! — and vour sons — or was vour on ’em-every one on ’em fifteen stone in his shoes, to patten again’ any man from Whit’sea Mere to Denver Sluice, for twenty pounds o’ gold; and there’s the money to lay down, and let the man as dare cover it, down with his money, and on wi’ his pattens, thirteen-inch runners, down the wind, again’ either a one o’ the bairns!”

And he jingled in his pockets a heavy bag of gold, and winked, and chuckled, and then suddenly checking himself, repeated in a sad, dubious tone, two or three times, “Vour on ’em there was — vour on ’em there was;” and relieved his feelings by springing the pony into a canter till he came to a public-house, where he pulled up, called for a pot of hot ale, and insisted on treating me. I assured him that I never drank fermented liquors.

“Aw? Eh? How can yow do that then? Die o’ cowd i’ the fen, that gate, yow would. Love ye then! they as dinnot tak’ spirits down thor, tak’ their pennord o’ elevation, then — women-folk especial.”

“What’s elevation?”

“Oh! ho! ho! — yow goo into druggist’s shop o’ market-day, into Cambridge, and you’ll see the little boxes, doozens and doozens, a’ ready on the counter; and never a ven-man’s wife goo by, but what calls in for her pennord o’ elevation, to last her out the week. Oh! ho! ho! Well, it keeps women-folk quiet, it do; and it’s mortal good agin ago pains.”

“But what is it?”

“Opium, bor’ alive, opium!”

“But doesn’t it ruin their health? I should think it the very worst sort of drunkenness.”

“Ow, well, yow moi soy that-mak’th ’em cruel thin then, it do; but what can bodies do i’ th’ago? Bot it’s a bad thing, it is. Harken yow to me. Didst ever know one called Porter, to yowr trade?”

I thought a little, and recollected a man of that name, who had worked with us a year or two before — a great friend of a certain scatter-brained Irish lad, brother of Crossthwaite’s wife.

“Well, I did once, but I have lost sight of him twelve months, or more.”

The old man faced sharp round on me, swinging the little gig almost over, and then twisted himself back again, and put on a true farmer-like look of dogged, stolid reserve. We rolled on a few minutes in silence.

“Dee yow consider, now, that a mon mought be lost, like, into Lunnon?”

“How lost?”

“Why, yow told o’ they sweaters — dee yow think a mon might get in wi’ one o’ they, and they that mought be looking for un not to vind un?”

“I do, indeed. There was a friend of that man Porter got turned away from our shop, because he wouldn’t pay some tyrannical fine for being saucy, as they called it, to the shopman; and he went to a sweater’s — and then to another; and his friends have been tracking him up and down this six months, and can hear no news of him.”

“Aw! guide us! And what’n, think yow, be gone wi’ un?”

“I am afraid he has got into one of those dens, and has pawned his clothes, as dozens of them do, for food, and so can’t get out.”

“Pawned his clothes for victuals! To think o’ that, noo! But if he had work, can’t he get victuals?”

“Oh!” I said, “there’s many a man who, after working seventeen or eighteen hours a day, Sundays and all, without even time to take off his clothes, finds himself brought in in debt to his tyrant at the week’s end. And if he gets no work, the villain won’t let him leave the house; he has to stay there starving, on the chance of an hour’s job. I tell you, I’ve known half a dozen men imprisoned in that way, in a little dungeon of a garret, where they had hardly room to stand upright, and only just space to sit and work between their beds, without breathing the fresh air, or seeing God’s sun, for months together, with no victuals but a few slices of bread-and-butter, and a little slop of tea, twice a day, till they were starved to the very bone.”

“Oh, my God! my God!” said the old man, in a voice which had a deeper tone of feeling than mere sympathy with others’ sorrow was likely to have produced. There was evidently something behind all these inquiries of his. I longed to ask him if his name, too, was not Porter.

“Aw yow knawn Billy Porter? What was a like? Tell me, now — what was a like, in the Lord’s name! what was a like unto?”

“Very tall and bony,” I answered.

“Ah! sax feet, and more? and a yard across? — but a was starved, a was a’ thin, though, maybe, when yow sawn un? — and beautiful fine hair, hadn’t a, like a lass’s?”

“The man I knew had red hair,” quoth I.

“Ow, ay, an’ that it wor, red as a rising sun, and the curls of un like gowlden guineas! And thou knew’st Billy Porter! To think o’ that, noo.”—

Another long silence.

“Could you find un, dee yow think, noo, into Lunnon? Suppose, now, there was a mon ‘ud gie — may be five pund — ten pund — twenty pund, by ——— twenty pund down, for to ha’ him brocht home safe and soun’— Could yow do’t, bor’? I zay, could yow do’t?”

“I could do it as well without the money as with, if I could do it at all. But have you no guess as to where he is?”

He shook his head sadly.

“We — that’s to zay, they as wants un-hav’n’t heerd tell of un vor this three year — three year coom Whitsuntide as ever was —” And he wiped his eyes with his cuff.

“If you will tell me all about him, and where he was last heard of, I will do all I can to find him.”

“Will ye, noo? will ye? The Lord bless ye for zaying that.” And he grasped my hand in his great iron fist, and fairly burst out crying.

“Was he a relation of yours?” I asked, gently.

“My bairn — my bairn — my eldest bairn. Dinnot yow ax me no moor — dinnot then, bor’. Gie on, yow powney, and yow goo leuk vor un.”

Another long silence.

“I’ve a been to Lunnon, looking vor un.”

Another silence.

“I went up and down, up and down, day and night, day and night, to all pot-houses as I could zee; vor, says I, he was a’ways a main chap to drink, he was. Oh, deery me! and I never cot zight on un-and noo I be most spent, I be.”—

And he pulled up at another public-house, and tried this time a glass of brandy. He stopped, I really think, at every inn between that place and Cambridge, and at each tried some fresh compound; but his head seemed, from habit, utterly fire-proof.

At last, we neared Cambridge, and began to pass groups of gay horsemen, and then those strange caps and gowns — ugly and unmeaning remnant of obsolete fashion.

The old man insisted on driving me up to the gate of —— College, and there dropped me, after I had given him my address, entreating me to “vind the bairn, and coom to zee him down to Metholl. But dinnot goo ax for Farmer Porter — they’s all Porters there away. Yow ax for Wooden-house Bob — that’s me; and if I barn’t to home, ax for Mucky Billy — that’s my brawther — we’re all gotten our names down to ven; and if he barn’t to home, yow ax for Frog-hall — that’s where my sister do live; and they’ll all veed ye, and lodge ye, and welcome come. We be all like one, doon in the ven; and do ye, do ye, vind my bairn!” And he trundled on, down the narrow street.

I was soon directed, by various smart-looking servants, to my cousin’s rooms; and after a few mistakes, and wandering up and down noble courts and cloisters, swarming with gay young men, whose jaunty air and dress seemed strangely out of keeping with the stem antique solemnity of the Gothic buildings around, I espied my cousin’s name over a door; and, uncertain how he might receive me, I gave a gentle, half-apologetic knock, which, was answered by a loud “Come in!” and I entered on a scene, even more incongruous than anything I had seen outside.

“If we can only keep away from Jesus as far as the corner, I don’t care.”

“If we don’t run into that first Trinity before the willows, I shall care with a vengeance.”

“If we don’t it’s a pity,” said my cousin. “Wadham ran up by the side of that first Trinity yesterday, and he said that they were as well gruelled as so many posters, before they got to the stile.”

This unintelligible, and to my inexperienced ears, irreverent conversation, proceeded from half a dozen powerful young men, in low-crowned sailors’ hats and flannel trousers, some in striped jerseys, some in shooting-jackets, some smoking cigars, some beating up eggs in sherry; while my cousin, dressed like “a fancy waterman,” sat on the back of a sofa, puffing away at a huge meerschaum.

“Alton! why, what wind on earth has blown you here?”

By the tone, the words seemed rather an inquiry as to what wind would be kind enough to blow me back again. But he recovered his self-possession in a moment.

“Delighted to see you! Where’s your portmanteau? Oh — left it at the Bull! Ah! I see. Very well, we’ll send the gyp for it in a minute, and order some luncheon. We’re just going down to the boat-race. Sorry I can’t stop, but we shall all be fined — not a moment to lose. I’ll send you in luncheon as I go through the butteries; then, perhaps, you’d like to come down and see the race. Ask the gyp to tell you the way. Now, then, follow your noble captain, gentlemen — to glory and a supper.” And he bustled out with his crew.

While I was staring about the room, at the jumble of Greek books, boxing-gloves, and luscious prints of pretty women, a shrewd-faced, smart man entered, much better dressed than myself.

“What would you like, sir? Ox-tail soup, sir, or gravy-soup, sir? Stilton cheese, sir, or Cheshire, sir? Old Stilton, sir, just now.”

Fearing lest many words might betray my rank — and, strange to say, though I should not have been afraid of confessing myself an artisan before the “gentlemen” who had just left the room, I was ashamed to have my low estate discovered, and talked over with his compeers, by the flunkey who waited on them — I answered, “Anything — I really don’t care,” in as aristocratic and off-hand a tone as I could assume.

“Porter or ale, sir?”

“Water,” without a “thank you,” I am ashamed to say for I was not at that time quite sure whether it was well-bred to be civil to servants.

The man vanished, and reappeared with a savoury luncheon, silver forks, snowy napkins, smart plates — I felt really quite a gentleman.

He gave me full directions as to my “way to the boats, sir;” and I started out much refreshed; passed through back streets, dingy, dirty, and profligate-looking enough; out upon wide meadows, fringed with enormous elms; across a ferry; through a pleasant village, with its old grey church and spire; by the side of a sluggish river, alive with wherries. I had walked down some mile or so, and just as I heard a cannon, as I thought, fire at some distance, and wondered at its meaning, I came to a sudden bend of the river, with a church-tower hanging over the stream on the opposite bank, a knot of tall poplars, weeping willows, rich lawns, sloping down to the water’s side, gay with bonnets and shawls; while, along the edge of the stream, light, gaudily-painted boats apparently waited for the race — altogether the most brilliant and graceful group of scenery which I had beheld in my little travels. I stopped to gaze; and among the ladies on the lawn opposite, caught sight of a figure — my heart leapt into my mouth! Was it she at last? It was too far to distinguish features; the dress was altogether different — but was it not she? I saw her move across the lawn, and take the arm of a tall, venerable-looking man; and his dress was the same as that of the Dean, at the Dulwich Gallery — was it? was it not? To have found her, and a river between us! It was ludicrously miserable — miserably ludicrous. Oh, that accursed river, which debarred me from certainty, from bliss! I would have plunged across — but there were three objections — first, that I could not swim; next, what could I do when I had crossed? and thirdly, it might not be she after all.

And yet I was certain — instinctively certain — that it was she, the idol of my imagination for years. If I could not see her features under that little white bonnet, I could imagine them there; they flashed up in my memory as fresh as ever. Did she remember my features, as I did hers? Would she know me again? Had she ever even thought of me, from that day to this? Fool! But there I stood, fascinated, gazing across the river, heedless of the racing-boats, and the crowd, and the roar that was rushing up to me at the rate of ten miles an hour, and in a moment more, had caught me, and swept me away with it, whether I would or not, along the towing-path, by the side of the foremost boats.

And yet, after a few moments, I ceased to wonder either at the Cambridge passion for boat-racing, or at the excitement of the spectators. “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” It was a noble sport — a sight such as could only be seen in England — some hundred of young men, who might, if they had chosen, been lounging effeminately about the streets, subjecting themselves voluntarily to that intense exertion, for the mere pleasure of toil. The true English stuff came out there; I felt that, in spite of all my prejudices — the stuff which has held Gibraltar and conquered at Waterloo — which has created a Birmingham and a Manchester, and colonized every quarter of the globe — that grim, earnest, stubborn energy, which, since the days of the old Romans, the English possess alone of all the nations of the earth. I was as proud of the gallant young fellows as if they had been my brothers — of their courage and endurance (for one could see that it was no child’s-play, from the pale faces, and panting lips), their strength and activity, so fierce and yet so cultivated, smooth, harmonious, as oar kept time with oar, and every back rose and fell in concert — and felt my soul stirred up to a sort of sweet madness, not merely by the shouts and cheers of the mob around me, but by the loud fierce pulse of the rowlocks, the swift whispering rush of the long snake-like eight oars, the swirl and gurgle of the water in their wake, the grim, breathless silence of the straining rowers. My blood boiled over, and fierce tears swelled into my eyes; for I, too, was a man, and an Englishman; and when I caught sight of my cousin, pulling stroke to the second boat in the long line, with set teeth and flashing eyes, the great muscles on his bare arms springing up into knots at every rapid stroke, I ran and shouted among the maddest and the foremost.

But I soon tired, and, footsore as I was, began to find my strength fail me. I tried to drop behind, but found it impossible in the press. At last, quite out of breath, I stopped; and instantly received a heavy blow from behind, which threw me on my face; and a fierce voice shouted in my ear, “Confound you, sir! don’t you know better than to do that?” I looked up, and saw a man twice as big as myself sprawling over me, headlong down the bank, toward the river, whither I followed him, but alas! not on my feet, but rolling head over heels. On the very brink he stuck his heels into the turf, and stopped dead, amid a shout of, “Well saved, Lynedale!” I did not stop; but rolled into some two-feet water, amid the laughter and shouts of the men.

I scrambled out, and limped on, shaking with wet and pain, till I was stopped by a crowd which filled the towing-path. An eight-oar lay under the bank, and the men on shore were cheering and praising those in the boat for having “bumped,” which word I already understood to mean, winning a race.

Among them, close to me, was the tall man who had upset me; and a very handsome, high-bred looking man he was. I tried to slip by, but he recognized me instantly, and spoke.

“I hope I didn’t hurt you much, Really, when I spoke so sharply, I did not see that you were not a gownsman!”

The speech, as I suppose now, was meant courteously enough. It indicated that though he might allow himself liberties with men of his own class, he was too well bred to do so with me. But in my anger I saw nothing but the words, “not a gownsman.” Why should he see that I was not a gownsman? Because I was shabbier? —(and my clothes, over and above the ducking they had had, were shabby); or more plebeian in appearance (whatsoever that may mean)? or wanted something else, which the rest had about them, and I had not? Why should he know that I was not a gownsman? I did not wish, of course, to be a gentleman, and an aristocrat; but I was nettled, nevertheless, at not being mistaken for one; and answered, sharply enough —

“No matter whether I am hurt or not. It serves me right for getting among you cursed aristocrats.”

“Box the cad’s ears, Lord Lynedale,” said a dirty fellow with a long pole — a cad himself, I should have thought.

“Let him go home and ask his mammy to hang him out to dry,” said another.

The lord (for so I understood he was) looked at me with an air of surprise and amusement, which may have been good-natured enough in him, but did not increase the good-nature in me.

“Tut, tut, my good fellow. I really am very sorry for having upset you. Here’s half-a-crown to cover damages.”

“Better give it me than a muff like that,” quoth he of the long pole; while I answered, surlily enough, that I wanted neither him nor his money, and burst through the crowd toward Cambridge. I was so shabby and plebeian, then, that people actually dare offer me money! Intolerable!

The reader may say that I was in a very unwholesome and unreasonable frame of mind.

So I was. And so would he have been in my place.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56