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

Chapter 16.

Cultivated Women.

I was thus brought in contact, for the first time in my life, with two exquisite specimens of cultivated womanhood; and they naturally, as the reader may well suppose, almost entirely engrossed my thoughts and interest.

Lillian, for so I must call her, became daily more and more agreeable; and tried, as I fancied, to draw me out, and show me off to the best advantage; whether from the desire of pleasing herself, or pleasing me, I know not, and do not wish to know — but the consequences to my boyish vanity were such as are more easy to imagine, than pleasant to describe. Miss Staunton, on the other hand, became, I thought, more and more unpleasant; not that she ever, for a moment, outstepped the bounds of the most perfect courtesy; but her manner, which was soft to no one except to Lord Lynedale, was, when she spoke to me, especially dictatorial and abrupt. She seemed to make a point of carping at chance words of mine, and of setting me, down suddenly, by breaking in with some severe, pithy observation, on conversations to which she had been listening unobserved. She seemed, too, to view with dislike anything like cordiality between me and Lillian — a dislike, which I was actually at moments vain enough (such a creature is man!) to attribute to — jealousy!!! till I began to suspect and hate her, as a proud, harsh, and exclusive aristocrat. And my suspicion and hatred received their confirmation, when, one morning, after an evening even more charming than usual, Lillian came down, reserved, peevish, all but sulky, and showed that that bright heaven of sunny features had room in it for a cloud, and that an ugly one. But I, poor fool, only pitied her, made up my mind that some one had ill-used her; and looked on her as a martyr — perhaps to that harsh cousin of hers.

That day was taken up with writing out answers to the dean’s searching questions on his pamphlet, in which, I believe, I acquitted myself tolerably; and he seemed far more satisfied with my commentary than I was with his text. He seemed to ignore utterly anything like religion, or even the very notion of God, in his chains of argument. Nature was spoken of as the wilier and producer of all the marvels which he describes; and every word in the book, to my astonishment, might have been written just as easily by an Atheist as by a dignitary of the Church of England.

I could not help, that evening, hinting this defect, as delicately as I could, to my good host, and was somewhat surprised to find that he did not consider it a defect at all.

“I am in no wise anxious to weaken the antithesis between natural and revealed religion. Science may help the former, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the latter. She stands on her own ground, has her own laws, and is her own reward. Christianity is a matter of faith and of the teaching of the Church. It must not go out of its way for science, and science must not go out of her way for it; and where they seem to differ, it is our duty to believe that they are reconcilable by fuller knowledge, but not to clip truth in order to make it match with doctrine.”

“Mr. Carlyle,” said Miss Staunton, in her abrupt way, “can see that the God of Nature is the God of man.”

“Nobody denies that, my dear.”

“Except in every word and action; else why do they not write about Nature as if it was the expression of a living, loving spirit, not merely a dead machine?”

“It may be very easy, my dear, for a Deist like Mr. Carlyle to see his God in Nature; but if he would accept the truths of Christianity, he would find that there were deeper mysteries in them than trees and animals can explain.”

“Pardon me, sir,” I said, “but I think that a very large portion of thoughtful working men agree with you, though, in their case, that opinion has only increased their difficulties about Christianity. They complain that they cannot identify the God of the Bible with the God of the world around them; and one of their great complaints against Christianity is, that it demands assent to mysteries which are independent of, and even contradictory to, the laws of Nature.”

The old man was silent.

“Mr. Carlyle is no Deist,” said Miss Staunton; “and I am sure, that unless the truths of Christianity contrive soon to get themselves justified by the laws of science, the higher orders will believe in them as little as Mr. Locke informs us that the working classes do.”

“You prophesy confidently, my darling.”

“Oh, Eleanor is in one of her prophetic moods to-night,” said Lillian, slyly. “She has been foretelling me I know not what misery and misfortune, just because I choose to amuse myself in my own way.”

And she gave another sly pouting look at Eleanor, and then called me to look over some engravings, chatting over them so charmingly! — and stealing, every now and then, a pretty, saucy look at her cousin, which seemed to say, “I shall do what I like, in spite of your predictions.”

This confirmed my suspicions that Eleanor had been trying to separate us; and the suspicion received a further corroboration, indirect, and perhaps very unfair, from the lecture which I got from my cousin after I went up-stairs.

He had been flattering me very much lately about “the impression” I was making on the family, and tormenting me by compliments on the clever way in which I “played my cards”; and when I denied indignantly any such intention, patting me on the back, and laughing me down in a knowing way, as much as to say that he was not to be taken in by my professions of simplicity. He seemed to judge every one by himself, and to have no notion of any middle characters between the mere green-horn and the deliberate schemer. But to-night, after commencing with the usual compliments, he went on:

“Now, first let me give you one hint, and be thankful for it. Mind your game with that Eleanor — Miss Staunton. She is a regular tyrant, I happen to know: a strong-minded woman, with a vengeance. She manages every one here; and unless you are in her good books, don’t expect to keep your footing in this house, my boy. So just mind and pay her a little more attention and Miss Lillian a little less. After all, it is worth the trouble. She is uncommonly well read; and says confounded clever things, too, when she wakes up out of the sulks; and you may pick up a wrinkle or two from her, worth pocketing. You mind what she says to you. You know she is going to be married to Lord Lynedale.”

I nodded assent.

“Well, then, if you want to hook him, you must secure her first.”

“I want to hook no one, George; I have told you that a thousand times.”

“Oh, no! certainly not — by no means! Why should you?” said the artful dodger. And he swung, laughing, out of the room, leaving in my mind a strange suspicion, of which I was ashamed, though I could not shake it off, that he had remarked Eleanor’s wish to cool my admiration for Lillian, and was willing, for some purpose of his own, to further that wish. The truth is, I had very little respect for him, or trust in him: and I was learning to look, habitually, for some selfish motive in all he said or did. Perhaps, if I had acted more boldly upon what I did see, I should not have been here now.

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