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

Chapter 25.

A True Nobleman.

At last my list of subscribers was completed, and my poems actually in the press. Oh! the childish joy with which I fondled my first set of proofs! And how much finer the words looked in print than they ever did in manuscript! — One took in the idea of a whole page so charmingly at a glance, instead of having to feel one’s way through line after line, and sentence after sentence. — There was only one drawback to my happiness — Mackaye did not seem to sympathize with it. He had never grumbled at what I considered, and still do consider, my cardinal offence, the omission of the strong political passages; he seemed, on the contrary, in his inexplicable waywardness, to be rather pleased at it than otherwise. It was my publishing at all at which he growled.

“Ech,” he said, “owre young to marry, is owre young to write; but it’s the way o’ these puir distractit times. Nae chick can find a grain o’ corn, but oot he rins cackling wi’ the shell on his head, to tell it to a’ the warld, as if there was never barley grown on the face o’ the earth before. I wonder whether Isaiah began to write before his beard was grown, or Dawvid either? He had mony a long year o’ shepherding an’ moss-trooping, an’ rugging an’ riving i’ the wilderness, I’ll warrant, afore he got thae gran’ lyrics o’ his oot o’ him. Ye might tak example too, gin ye were minded, by Moses, the man o’ God, that was joost forty years at the learning o’ the Egyptians, afore he thocht gude to come forward into public life, an’ then fun’ to his gran’ surprise, I warrant, that he’d begun forty years too sune — an’ then had forty years mair, after that, o’ marching an’ law-giving, an’ bearing the burdens o’ the people, before he turned poet.”

“Poet, sir! I never saw Moses in that light before.”

“Then ye’ll just read the 90th Psalm —‘the prayer o’ Moses, the man o’ God’— the grandest piece o’ lyric, to my taste, that I ever heard o’ on the face o’ God’s earth, an’ see what a man can write that’ll have the patience to wait a century or twa before he rins to the publisher’s. I gie ye up fra’ this moment; the letting out o’ ink is like the letting out o’ waters, or the eating o’ opium, or the getting up at public meetings. — When a man begins he canna stop. There’s nae mair enslaving lust o’ the flesh under the heaven than that same furor scribendi, as the Latins hae it.”

But at last my poems were printed, and bound, and actually published, and I sat staring at a book of my own making, and wondering how it ever got into being! And what was more, the book “took,” and sold, and was reviewed in People’s journals, and in newspapers; and Mackaye himself relaxed into a grin, when his oracle, the Spectator, the only honest paper, according to him, on the face of the earth, condescended, after asserting its impartiality by two or three searching sarcasms, to dismiss me, grimly-benignant, with a paternal pat on the shoulder. Yes — I was a real live author at last, and signed myself, by special request, in the —— Magazine, as “the author of Songs of the Highways.” At last it struck me, and Mackaye too, who, however he hated flunkeydom, never overlooked an act of discourtesy, that it would be right for me to call upon the dean, and thank him formally for all the real kindness he had shown me. So I went to the handsome house off Harley-street, and was shown into his study, and saw my own book lying on the table, and was welcomed by the good old man, and congratulated on my success, and asked if I did not see my own wisdom in “yielding to more experienced opinions than my own, and submitting to a censorship which, however severe it might have appeared at first, was, as the event proved, benignant both in its intentions and effects?”

And then I was asked, even I, to breakfast there the next morning. And I went, and found no one there but some scientific gentlemen, to whom I was introduced as “the young man whose poems we were talking of last night.” And Lillian sat at the head of the table, and poured out the coffee and tea. And between ecstasy at seeing her, and the intense relief of not finding my dreaded and now hated cousin there, I sat in a delirium of silent joy, stealing glances at her beauty, and listening with all my ears to the conversation, which turned upon the new-married couple.

I heard endless praises, to which I could not but assent in silence, of Lord Ellerton’s perfections. His very personal appearance had been enough to captivate my fancy; and then they went on to talk of his magnificent philanthropic schemes, and his deep sense, of the high duties of a landlord; and how, finding himself, at his father’s death, the possessor of two vast but neglected estates, he had sold one in order to be able to do justice to the other, instead of laying house to house, and field to field, like most of his compeers, “till he stood alone in the land, and there was no place left;” and how he had lowered his rents, even though it had forced him to put down the ancestral pack of hounds, and live in a corner of the old castle; and how he was draining, claying, breaking up old moorlands, and building churches, and endowing schools, and improving cottages; and how he was expelling the old ignorant bankrupt race of farmers, and advertising everywhere for men of capital, and science, and character, who would have courage to cultivate flax and silk, and try every species of experiment; and how he had one scientific farmer after another, staying in his house as a friend; and how he had numbers of his books rebound in plain covers, that he might lend them to every one on his estate who wished to read them; and how he had thrown open his picture gallery, not only to the inhabitants of the neighbouring town, but what (strange to say) seemed to strike the party as still more remarkable, to the labourers of his own village; and how he was at that moment busy transforming an old unoccupied manor-house into a great associate farm, in which all the labourers were to live under one roof, with a common kitchen and dining-hall, clerks and superintendents, whom they were to choose, subject only to his approval, and all of them, from the least to the greatest, have their own interest in the farm, and be paid by percentage on the profits; and how he had one of the first political economists of the day staying with him, in order to work out for him tables of proportionate remuneration, applicable to such an agricultural establishment; and how, too, he was giving the spade-labour system a fair-trial, by laying out small cottage-farms, on rocky knolls and sides of glens, too steep to be cultivated by the plough; and was locating on them the most intelligent artisans whom he could draft from the manufacturing town hard by —

And at that notion, my brain grew giddy with the hope of seeing myself one day in one of those same cottages, tilling the earth, under God’s sky, and perhaps —. And then a whole cloud-world of love, freedom, fame, simple, graceful country luxury steamed up across my brain, to end — not, like the man’s in the “Arabian Nights,” in my kicking over the tray of China, which formed the base-point of my inverted pyramid of hope — but in my finding the contents of my plate deposited in my lap, while I was gazing fixedly at Lillian.

I must say for myself, though, that such accidents happened seldom; whether it was bashfulness, or the tact which generally, I believe, accompanies a weak and nervous body, and an active mind; or whether it was that I possessed enough relationship to the monkey-tribe to make me a first-rate mimic, I used to get tolerably well through on these occasions, by acting on the golden rule of never doing anything which I had not seen some one else do first — a rule which never brought me into any greater scrape than swallowing something intolerably hot, sour, and nasty (whereof I never discovered the name), because I had seen the dean do so a moment before.

But one thing struck me through the whole of this conversation — the way in which the new-married Lady Ellerton was spoken of, as aiding, encouraging, originating — a helpmeet, if not an oracular guide, for her husband — in all these noble plans. She had already acquainted herself with every woman on the estate; she was the dispenser, not merely of alms — for those seemed a disagreeable necessity, from which Lord Ellerton was anxious to escape as soon as possible — but of advice, comfort, and encouragement. She not only visited the sick, and taught in the schools — avocations which, thank God, I have reason to believe are matters of course, not only in the families of clergymen, but those of most squires and noblemen, when they reside on their estates — but seemed, from the hints which I gathered, to be utterly devoted, body and soul, to the welfare of the dwellers on her husband’s land.

“I had no notion,” I dared at last to remark, humbly enough, “that Miss — Lady Ellerton cared so much for the people.”

“Really! One feels inclined sometimes to wish that she cared for anything beside them,” said Lillian, half to her father and half to me.

This gave a fresh shake to my estimate of that remarkable woman’s character. But still, who could be prouder, more imperious, more abrupt in manner, harsh, even to the very verge of good-breeding? (for I had learnt what good-breeding was, from the debating society as well as from the drawing-room;) and, above all, had she not tried to keep me from Lillian? But these cloudy thoughts melted rapidly away in that sunny atmosphere of success and happiness, and I went home as merry as a bird, and wrote all the morning more gracefully and sportively, as I fancied, than I had ever yet done.

But my bliss did not end here. In a week or so, behold one morning a note — written, indeed, by the dean — but directed in Lillian’s own hand, inviting me to come there to tea, that I might see a few, of the literary characters of the day.

I covered the envelope with kisses, and thrust it next my fluttering heart. I then proudly showed the note to Mackaye. He looked pleased, yet pensive, and then broke out with a fresh adaptation of his favourite song,

— and shovel hats and a’ that —

A man’s a man for a’ that.

“The auld gentleman is a man and a gentleman; an’ has made a verra courteous, an’ weel considerit move, gin ye ha’ the sense to profit by it, an’ no turn it to yer ain destruction.”


“Ay — that’s the word, an’ nothing less, laddie!”

And he went into the outer shop, and returned with a volume of Bulwer’s “Ernest Maltravers.”

“What! are you a novel reader, Mr. Mackaye?”

“How do ye ken what I may ha’ thocht gude to read in my time? Yell be pleased the noo to sit down an’ begin at that page — an read, mark, learn, an’ inwardly digest, the history of Castruccio Cesarini — an’ the gude God gie ye grace to lay the same to heart.”

I read that fearful story; and my heart sunk, and my eyes were full of tears, long ere I had finished it. Suddenly I looked up at Mackaye, half angry at the pointed allusion to my own case.

The old man was watching me intently, with folded hands, and a smile of solemn interest and affection worthy of Socrates himself. He turned his head as I looked up, but his lips kept moving. I fancied, I know not why, that he was praying for me.

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