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

Chapter 27.

The Plush Breeches Tragedy.

My triumph had received a cruel check enough when just at its height, and more were appointed to follow. Behold! some two days after, another — all the more bitter, because my conscience whispered that it was not altogether undeserved. The people’s press had been hitherto praising and petting me lovingly enough. I had been classed (and heaven knows that the comparison was dearer to me than all the applause of the wealthy) with the Corn–Law Rhymer, and the author of the “Purgatory of Suicides.” My class had claimed my talents as their own — another “voice fresh from the heart of nature,” another “untutored songster of the wilderness,” another “prophet arisen among the suffering millions,”— when, one day, behold in Mr. O’Flynn’s paper a long and fierce attack on me, my poems, my early history! How he could have got at some of the facts there mentioned, how he could have dared to inform his readers that I had broken my mother’s heart by my misconduct, I cannot conceive; unless my worthy brother-in-law, the Baptist preacher, had been kind enough to furnish him with the materials. But however that may be, he showed me no mercy. I was suddenly discovered to be a time-server, a spy, a concealed aristocrat. Such paltry talent as I had, I had prostituted for the sake of fame. I had deserted The People’s Cause for filthy lucre — an allurement which Mr. O’Flynn had always treated with withering scorn —in print. Nay, more, I would write, and notoriously did write, in any paper, Whig, Tory, or Radical, where I could earn a shilling by an enormous gooseberry, or a scrap of private slander. And the working men were solemnly warned to beware of me and my writings, till the editor had further investigated certain ugly facts in my history, which he would in due time report to his patriotic and enlightened readers.

All this stung me in the most sensitive nerve of my whole heart, for I knew that I could not altogether exculpate myself; and to that miserable certainty was added the dread of some fresh exposure. Had he actually heard of the omissions in my poems? — and if he once touched on that subject, what could I answer? Oh! how bitterly now I felt the force of the critic’s careless lash! The awful responsibility of those written words, which we bandy about so thoughtlessly! How I recollected now, with shame and remorse, all the hasty and cruel utterances to which I, too, had given vent against those who had dared to differ from me; the harsh, one-sided judgments, the reckless imputations of motive, the bitter sneers, “rejoicing in evil rather than in the truth.” How I, too, had longed to prove my victims in the wrong, and turned away, not only lazily, but angrily, from many an exculpatory fact! And here was my Nemesis come at last. As I had done unto others, so it was done unto me!

It was right that it should be so. However indignant, mad, almost murderous, I felt at the time, I thank God for it now. It is good to be punished in kind. It is good to be made to feel what we have made others feel. It is good — anything is good, however bitter, which shows us that there is such a law as retribution; that we are not the sport of blind chance or a triumphant fiend, but that there is a God who judges the earth — righteous to repay every man according to his works.

But at the moment I had no such ray of comfort — and, full of rage and shame, I dashed the paper down before Mackaye. “How shall I answer him? What shall I say?”

The old man read it all through, with a grim saturnine smile.

“Hoolie, hoolie, speech, is o’ silver — silence is o’ gold says Thomas Carlyle, anent this an’ ither matters. Wha’d be fashed wi’ sic blethers? Ye’ll just abide patient, and haud still in the Lord, until this tyranny be owerpast. Commit your cause to him, said the auld Psalmist, an’ he’ll mak your righteousness as clear as the light, an’ your just dealing as the noonday.”

“But I must explain; I owe it as a duty to myself; I must refute these charges; I must justify myself to our friends.”

“Can ye do that same, laddie?” asked he, with one of his quaint, searching looks. Somehow I blushed, and could not altogether meet his eye, while he went on, “— An’ gin ye could, whaur would ye do ’t? I ken na periodical whar the editor will gie ye a clear stage an’ no favour to bang him ower the lugs.”

“Then I will try some other paper.”

“An’ what for then? They that read him, winna read the ither; an’ they that read the ither, winna read him. He has his ain set o’ dupes like every ither editor; an’ ye mun let him gang his gate, an’ feed his ain kye with his ain hay. He’ll no change it for your bidding.”

“What an abominable thing this whole business of the press is then, if each editor is to be allowed to humbug his readers at his pleasure, without a possibility of exposing or contradicting him!”

“An’ ye’ve just spoken the truth, laddie. There’s na mair accursed inquisition, than this of thae self-elected popes, the editors. That puir auld Roman ane, ye can bring him forat when ye list, bad as he is. ‘Fænum habet in cornu;’ his name’s ower his shop-door. But these anonymies — priests o’ the order of Melchisedec by the deevil’s side, without father or mither, beginning o’ years nor end o’ days — without a local habitation or a name-as kittle to baud as a brock in a cairn —”

“What do you mean, Mr. Mackaye?” asked I, for he was getting altogether unintelligibly Scotch, as was his custom when excited.

“Ou, I forgot; ye’re a puir Southern body, an’ no sensible to the gran’ metaphoric powers o’ the true Dawric. But it’s an accursit state a’thegither, the noo, this, o’ the anonymous press — oreeginally devised, ye ken, by Balaam the son o’ Beor, for serving God wi’out the deevil’s finding it out — an’ noo, after the way o’ human institutions, translated ower to help folks to serve the deevil without God’s finding it out. I’m no’ astonished at the puir expiring religious press for siccan a fa’; but for the working men to be a’ that’s bad — it’s grewsome to behold. I’ll tell ye what, my bairn, there’s na salvation for the workmen, while they defile themselves this fashion, wi’ a’ the very idols o’ their ain tyrants — wi’ salvation by act o’ parliament — irresponsible rights o’ property — anonymous Balaamry — fechtin’ that canny auld farrant fiend, Mammon, wi’ his ain weapons — and then a’ fleyed, because they get well beaten for their pains. I’m sair forfaughten this mony a year wi’ watching the puir gowks, trying to do God’s wark wi’ the deevil’s tools. Tak tent o’ that.”

And I did “tak tent o’ it.” Still there would have been as little present consolation as usual in Mackaye’s unwelcome truths, even if the matter had stopped there. But, alas! it did not stop there. O’Flynn seemed determined to “run a muck” at me. Every week some fresh attack appeared. The very passages about the universities and church property, which had caused our quarrel, were paraded against me, with free additions and comments; and, at last, to my horror, out came the very story which I had all along dreaded, about the expurgation of my poems, with the coarsest allusions to petticoat influence — aristocratic kisses — and the Duchess of Devonshire canvassing draymen for Fox, &c., &c. How he got a clue to the scandal I cannot conceive. Mackaye and Crossthwaite, I had thought, were the only souls to whom I had ever breathed the secret, and they denied indignantly the having ever betrayed my weakness. How it came out, I say again, I cannot conceive; except because it is a great everlasting law, and sure to fulfil itself sooner or later, as we may see by the histories of every remarkable, and many an unremarkable, man —“There is nothing secret, but it shall be made manifest; and whatsoever ye have spoken in the closet, shall be proclaimed upon the house-tops.”

For some time after that last exposure, I was thoroughly crest-fallen — and not without reason. I had been giving a few lectures among the working men, on various literary and social subjects. I found my audience decrease — and those who remained seemed more inclined to hiss than to applaud me. In vain I ranted and quoted poetry, often more violently than my own opinions justified. My words touched no responsive chord in my hearers’ hearts; they had lost faith in me.

At last, in the middle of a lecture on Shelley, I was indulging, and honestly too, in some very glowing and passionate praise of the true nobleness of a man, whom neither birth nor education could blind to the evils of society; who, for the sake of the suffering many, could trample under foot his hereditary pride, and become an outcast for the People’s Cause.

I heard a whisper close to me, from one whose opinion I valued, and value still — a scholar and a poet, one who had tasted poverty, and slander, and a prison, for The Good Cause:

“Fine talk: but it’s ‘all in his day’s work.’ Will he dare to say that tomorrow to the ladies at the West-end?”

No — I should not. I knew it; and at that instant I felt myself a liar, and stopped short — my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. I fumbled at my papers — clutched the water-tumbler — tried to go on — stopped short again — caught up my hat, and rushed from the room, amid peals of astonished laughter.

It was some months after this that, fancying the storm blown over, I summoned up courage enough to attend a political meeting of our party; but even there my Nemesis met full face. After some sanguinary speech, I really forgot from whom, and, if I recollected, God forbid that I should tell now, I dared to controvert, mildly enough, Heaven knows, some especially frantic assertion or other. But before I could get out three sentences, O’Flynn flew at me with a coarse invective, hounded on, by-the-by, by one who, calling himself a gentleman, might have been expected to know better. But, indeed, he and O’Flynn had the same object in view, which was simply to sell their paper; and as a means to that great end, to pander to the fiercest passions of their readers, to bully and silence all moderate and rational Chartists, and pet and tar on the physical-force men, till the poor fellows began to take them at their word. Then, when it came to deeds and not to talk, and people got frightened, and the sale of the paper decreased a little, a blessed change came over them — and they awoke one morning meeker than lambs; “ulterior measures” had vanished back into the barbarous ages, pikes, vitriol-bottles, and all; and the public were entertained with nothing but homilies on patience and resignation, the “triumphs of moral justice,” the “omnipotence of public opinion,” and the “gentle conquests of fraternal love”— till it was safe to talk treason and slaughter again.

But just then treason happened to be at a premium. Sedition, which had been floundering on in a confused, disconsolate, underground way ever since 1842, was supposed by the public to be dead; and for that very reason it was safe to talk it, or, at least, back up those who chose to do so. And so I got no quarter — though really, if the truth must be told, I had said nothing unreasonable.

Home I went disgusted, to toil on at my hack-writing, only praying that I might be let alone to scribble in peace, and often thinking, sadly, how little my friends in Harley-street could guess at the painful experience, the doubts, the struggles, the bitter cares, which went to the making of the poetry which they admired so much!

I was not, however, left alone to scribble in peace, either by O’Flynn or by his readers, who formed, alas! just then, only too large a portion of the thinking artizans; every day brought some fresh slight or annoyance with it, till I received one afternoon, by the Parcels Delivery Company, a large unpaid packet, containing, to my infinite disgust, an old pair of yellow plush breeches, with a recommendation to wear them, whose meaning could not be mistaken.

Furious, I thrust the unoffending garment into the lire, and held it there with the tongs, regardless of the horrible smell which accompanied its martyrdom, till the lady-lodger on the first floor rushed down to inquire whether the house was on fire.

I answered by hurling a book at her head, and brought down a volley of abuse, under which I sat in sulky patience, till Mackaye and Crossthwaite came in, and found her railing in the doorway, and me sitting over the fire, still intent on the frizzling remains of the breeches.

“Was this insult of your invention, Mr. Crossthwaite?” asked I, in a tone of lofty indignation, holding up the last scrap of unroasted plush.

Roars of laughter from both of them made me only more frantic, and I broke out so incoherently, that it was some time before the pair could make out the cause of my fury.

“Upon my honour, Locke,” quoth John, at last, holding his sides, “I never sent them; though, on the whole — you’ve made my stomach ache with laughing. I can’t speak. But you must expect a joke or two, after your late fashionable connexions.”

I stood, still and white with rage.

“Really, my good fellow, how can you wonder if our friends suspect you? Can you deny that you’ve been off and on lately between flunkeydom and The Cause, like a donkey between two bundles of hay? Have you not neglected our meetings? Have you not picked all the spice out of your poems? And can you expect to eat your cake and keep it too? You must be one thing or the other; and, though Sandy, here, is too kind-hearted to tell you, you have disappointed us both miserably — and there’s the long and short of it.”

I hid my face in my hands, and sat moodily over the fire; my conscience told me that I had nothing to answer.

“Whisht, Johnnie! Ye’re ower sair on the lad. He’s a’ right at heart still, an he’ll do good service. But the deevil a’ways fechts hardest wi’ them he’s maist ‘feard of. What’s this anent agricultural distress ye had to tell me the noo?”

“There is a rising down in the country, a friend of mine writes me. The people are starving, not because bread is dear, but because it’s cheap; and, like sensible men, they’re going to have a great meeting, to inquire the rights and wrong of all that. Now, I want to send a deputation down, to see how far they are inclined to go, and let them know we up in London are with them. And then we might get up a corresponding association, you know. It’s a great opening for spreading the principles of the Charter.”

“I sair misdoubt, it’s just bread they’ll be wanting, they labourers, mair than liberty. Their God is their belly, I’m thinking, and a verra poor empty idol he is the noo; sma’ burnt offerings and fat o’ rams he gets to propitiate him. But ye might send down a canny body, just to spy out the nakedness o’ the land.”

“I will go,” I said, starting up. “They shall see that I do care for The Cause. If it’s a dangerous mission, so much the better. It will prove my sincerity. Where is the place?”

“About ten miles from D——.”

“D——!” My heart sank. If it had been any other spot in England! But it was too late to retract. Sandy saw what was the matter, and tried to turn the subject; but I was peremptory, almost rude with him. I felt I must keep up my present excitement, or lose my heart, and my caste, for ever; and as the hour for the committee was at hand, I jumped up and set off thither with them, whether they would or not. I heard Sandy whisper to Crossthwaite, and turned quite fiercely on him.

“If you want to speak about me, speak out. If you fancy that I shall let my connexion with that place” (I could not bring myself to name it) “stand in the way of my duty, you do not know me.”

I announced my intention at the meeting. It was at first received coldly; but I spoke energetically — perhaps, as some told me afterwards, actually eloquently. When I got heated, I alluded to my former stay at D— — and said (while my heart sunk at the bravado which I was uttering) that I should consider it a glory to retrieve my character with them, and devote myself to the cause of the oppressed, in the very locality whence had first arisen their unjust and pardonable suspicions. In short, generous, trusting hearts as they were, and always are, I talked them round; they shook me by the hand one by one, bade me God speed, told me that I stood higher than ever in their eyes, and then set to work to vote money from their funds for my travelling expenses, which I magnanimously refused, saying that I had a pound or two left from the sale of my poems, and that I must be allowed, as an act of repentance and restitution, to devote it to The Cause.

My triumph was complete. Even O’Flynn, who, like all Irishmen, had plenty of loose good-nature at bottom, and was as sudden and furious in his loves as in his hostilities, scrambled over the benches, regardless of patriots’ toes, to shake me violently by the hand, and inform me that I was “a broth of a boy,” and that “any little disagreements between us had vanished like a passing cloud from the sunshine of our fraternity”— when my eye was caught by a face which there was no mistaking — my cousin’s!

Yes, there he sat, watching me like a basilisk, with his dark, glittering, mesmeric eyes, out of a remote corner of the room — not in contempt or anger, but there was a quiet, assured, sardonic smile about his lips, which chilled me to the heart.

The meeting was sufficiently public to allow of his presence, but how had he found out its existence? Had he come there as a spy on me? Had he been in the room when my visit to D—— was determined on? I trembled at the thought; and I trembled, too, lest he should be daring enough — and I knew he could dare anything — to claim acquaintance with me there and then. It would have ruined my new-restored reputation for ever. But he sat still and steady: and I had to go through the rest of the evening’s business under the miserable, cramping knowledge that every word and gesture was being noted down by my most deadly enemy; trembling whenever I was addressed, lest some chance word of an acquaintance would implicate me still further — though, indeed, I was deep enough already. The meeting seemed interminable; and there I fidgeted, with my face scarlet — always seeing those basilisk eyes upon me — in fancy — for I dared not look again towards the corner where I knew they were.

At last it was over — the audience went out; and when I had courage to look round, my cousin had vanished among them. A load was taken off my breast, and I breathed freely again — for five minutes; — for I had not made ten steps up the street, when an arm was familiarly thrust through mine, and I found myself in the clutches of my evil genius.

“How are you, my dear fellow? Expected to meet you there. Why, what an orator you are! Really, I haven’t heard more fluent or passionate English this month of Sundays. You must give me a lesson in sermon-preaching. I can tell you, we parsons want a hint or two in that line. So you’re going down to D— — to see after those poor starving labourers? ‘Pon my honour, I’ve a great mind to go with you.”

So, then, he knew all! However, there was nothing for it but to brazen it out; and, besides, I was in his power, and however hateful to me his seeming cordiality might be, I dared not offend him at that moment.

“It would be well if you did. If you parsons would show yourselves at such places as these a little oftener, you would do more to make the people believe your mission real, than by all the tracts and sermons in the world.”

“But, my dear cousin” (and he began to snuffle and sink his voice), “there is so much sanguinary language, so much unsanctified impatience, you frighten away all the meek apostolic men among the priesthood — the very ones who feel most for the lost sheep of the flock.

“Then the parsons are either great Pharisees or great cowards, or both.”

“Very likely. I was in a precious fright myself, I know, when I saw you recognized me. If I had not felt strengthened, you know, as of course one ought to be in all trials, by the sense of my holy calling, I think I should have bolted at once. However, I took the precaution of bringing my Bowie and revolver with me, in case the worst came to the worst.”

“And a very needless precaution it was,” said I, half laughing at the quaint incongruity of the priestly and the lay elements in his speech. “You don’t seem to know much of working men’s meetings, or working men’s morals. Why, that place was open to all the world. The proceedings will be in the newspaper tomorrow. The whole bench of bishops might have been there, if they had chosen; and a great deal of good it would have done them!”

“I fully agree with you, my dear fellow. No one hates the bishops more than we true high-churchmen, I can tell you — that’s a great point of sympathy between us and the people. But I must be off. By-the-by, would you like me to tell our friends at D—— that I met you? They often ask after you in their letters, I assure you.”

This was a sting of complicated bitterness. I felt all that it meant at once. So he was in constant correspondence with them, while I— and that thought actually drove out of my head the more pressing danger of his utterly ruining me in their esteem, by telling them, as he had a very good right to do, that I was going to preach Chartism to discontented mobs.

“Ah! well! perhaps you wouldn’t wish it mentioned? As you like, you know. Or, rather,” and he laid an iron grasp on my arm, and dropped his voice — this time in earnest —“as you behave, my wise and loyal cousin! Good night.”

I went home — the excitement of self-applause, which the meeting had called up, damped by a strange weight of foreboding. And yet I could not help laughing, when, just as I was turning into bed, Crossthwaite knocked at my door, and, on being admitted, handed over to me a bundle wrapped up in paper.

“There’s a pair of breeks for you — not plush ones, this time, old fellow — but you ought to look as smart as possible. There’s so much in a man’s looking dignified, and all that, when he’s speechifying. So I’ve just brought you down my best black trousers to travel in. We’re just of a size, you know; little and good, like a Welshman’s cow. And if you tear them, why, we’re not like poor, miserable, useless aristocrats; tailors and sailors can mend their own rents.” And he vanished, whistling the “Marseillaise.”

I went to bed and tossed about, fancying to myself my journey, my speech, the faces of the meeting, among which Lillian’s would rise, in spite of all the sermons which I preached to myself on the impossibility of her being there, of my being known, of any harm happening from the movement; but I could not shake off the fear. If there were a riot, a rising! — If any harm were to happen to her! If — Till, mobbed into fatigue by a rabble of such miserable hypothetic ghosts, I fell asleep, to dream that I was going to be hanged for sedition, and that the mob were all staring and hooting at me, and Lillian clapping her hands and setting them on; and I woke in an agony, to find Sandy Mackaye standing by my bedside with a light.

“Hoolie, laddie! ye need na jump up that way. I’m no’ gaun to burke ye the nicht; but I canna sleep; I’m sair misdoubtful o’ the thing. It seems a’ richt, an’ I’ve been praying for us, an’ that’s mickle for me, to be taught our way; but I dinna see aught for ye but to gang. If your heart is richt with God in this matter, then he’s o’ your side, an’ I fear na what men may do to ye. An’ yet, ye’re my Joseph, as it were, the son o’ my auld age, wi’ a coat o’ many colours, plush breeks included; an’ gin aught take ye, ye’ll bring down my grey haffets wi’ sorrow to the grave!”

The old man gazed at me as be spoke, with a deep, earnest affection I had never seen in him before; and the tears glistened in his eyes by the flaring candlelight, as he went on:

“I ha’ been reading the Bible the nicht. It’s strange how the words o’t rise up, and open themselves whiles, to puir distractit bodies; though, maybe, no’ always in just the orthodox way. An’ I fell on that, ‘Behold I send ye forth as lambs in the midst o’ wolves. Be ye therefore wise as serpents an’ harmless as doves;’ an’ that gave me comfort, laddie, for ye. Mind the warning, dinna gang wud, whatever ye may see an’ hear; it’s an ill way o’ showing pity, to gang daft anent it. Dinna talk magniloquently; that’s the workman’s darling sin. An’ mind ye dinna go too deep wi’ them. Ye canna trust them to understand ye; they’re puir foolish sheep that ha’ no shepherd — swine that ha’ no wash, rather. So cast na your pearls before swine, laddie, lest they trample them under their feet, an’ turn again an’ rend ye.”

He went out, and I lay awake tossing till morning, making a thousand good resolutions — like the rest of mankind.

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