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

Chapter 29.

The Trial.

The day was come — quickly, thank Heaven; and I stood at the bar, with four or five miserable, haggard labourers, to take my trial for sedition, riot, and arson.

I had passed the intervening weeks half stupified with the despair of utter disappointment; disappointment at myself and my own loss of self-possession, which had caused all my misfortune — perhaps, too, and the thought was dreadful, that of my wretched fellow-sufferers:— disappointment with the labourers, with The Cause; and when the thought came over me, in addition, that I was irreparably disgraced in the eyes of my late patrons, parted for ever from Lillian by my own folly, I laid down my head and longed to die.

Then, again, I would recover awhile, and pluck up heart. I would plead my cause myself — I would testify against the tyrants to their face — I would say no longer to their besotted slaves, but to the men themselves, “Go to, ye rich men, weep and howl! The hire of your labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is by you kept back by fraud, crieth; and the cries of them that have reaped hath entered into the ears of the Lord God of Hosts.” I would brave my fate — I would die protesting, and glory in my martyrdom. But —

“Martyrdom?” said Mackaye, who had come down to D— — and was busy night and day about my trial. “Ye’ll just leave alone the martyr dodge, my puir bairn. Ye’re na martyr at a’, ye’ll understand, but a vera foolish callant, that lost his temper, an’ cast his pearls before swine — an’ very questionable pearls they, too, to judge by the price they fetch i’ the market.”

And then my heart sank again. And a few days before the trial a letter came, evidently in my cousin’s handwriting, though only signed with his initials:

“SIR — You are in a very great scrape — you will not deny that. How you will get out of it depends on your own common sense. You probably won’t be hanged — for nobody believes that you had a hand in burning the farm; but, unless you take care, you will be transported. Call yourself John Nokes; entrust your case to a clever lawyer, and keep in the background. I warn you, as a friend — if you try to speechify, and play the martyr, and let out who you are, the respectable people who have been patronizing you will find it necessary for their own sakes to clap a stopper on you for good and all, to make you out an impostor and a swindler, and get you out of the way for life: while, if you are quiet, it will suit them to be quiet too, and say nothing about you, if you say nothing about them; and then there will be a chance that they, as well as your own family, will do everything in their power to hush the matter up. So, again, don’t let out your real name; and instruct your lawyers to know nothing about the W.‘s; and then, perhaps, the Queen’s counsel will know nothing about them either. Mind — you are warned, and woe to you if you are fool enough not to take the warning.


Plead in a false name! Never, so help me Heaven! To go into court with a lie in my mouth — to make myself an impostor — probably a detected one — it seemed the most cunning scheme for ruining me, which my evil genius could have suggested, whether or not it might serve his own selfish ends. But as for the other hints, they seemed not unreasonable, and promised to save me trouble; while the continued pressure of anxiety and responsibility was getting intolerable to my over-wearied brain. So I showed the letter to Mackaye, who then told me that he had taken it for granted that I should come to my right mind, and had therefore already engaged an old compatriot as attorney, and the best counsel which money could procure.

“But where did you get the money? You have not surely been spending your own savings on me?”

“I canna say that I wadna ha’ so dune, in case o’ need. But the men in town just subscribit; puir honest fellows.”

“What! is my folly to be the cause of robbing them of their slender earnings? Never, Mackaye! Besides, they cannot have subscribed enough to pay the barrister whom you just mentioned. Tell me the whole truth, or, positively, I will plead my cause myself.”

“Aweel, then, there was a bit bank-note or twa cam’ to hand — I canna say whaur fra’. But they that sent it direckit it to be expendit in the defence o’ the sax prisoners — whereof ye make ane.”

Again a world of fruitless conjecture. It must be the same unknown friend who had paid my debt to my cousin — Lillian?


And so the day was come. I am not going to make a long picturesque description of my trial — trials have become lately quite hackneyed subjects, stock properties for the fiction-mongers — neither, indeed, could I do so, if I would. I recollect nothing of that day, but fragments — flashes of waking existence, scattered up and down in what seemed to me a whole life of heavy, confused, painful dreams, with the glare of all those faces concentrated on me — those countless eyes which I could not, could not meet — stony, careless, unsympathizing — not even angry — only curious. If they had but frowned on me, insulted me, gnashed their teeth on me, I could have glared back defiance; as it was, I stood cowed and stupified, a craven by the side of cravens.

Let me see — what can I recollect? Those faces — faces — everywhere faces — a faint, sickly smell of flowers — a perpetual whispering and rustling of dresses — and all through it, the voice of some one talking, talking — I seldom knew what, or whether it was counsel, witness, judge, or prisoner, that was speaking. I was like one asleep at a foolish lecture, who hears in dreams, and only wakes when the prosing stops. Was it not prosing? What was it to me what they said? They could not understand me — my motives — my excuses; the whole pleading, on my side as well as the crown’s, seemed one huge fallacy — beside the matter altogether — never touching the real point at issue, the eternal moral equity of my deeds or misdeeds. I had no doubt that it would all be conducted quite properly, and fairly, and according to the forms of law; but what was law to me — I wanted justice. And so I let them go on their own way, conscious of but one thought — was Lillian in the court?

I dared not look and see. I dared not lift up my eyes toward the gaudy rows of ladies who had crowded to the “interesting trial of the D—— rioters.” The torture of anxiety was less than that of certainty might be, and I kept my eyes down, and wondered how on earth the attorneys had found in so simple a case enough to stuff those great blue bags.

When, however, anything did seem likely to touch on a reality, I woke up forthwith, in spite of myself. I recollect well, for instance, a squabble about challenging the jurymen; and my counsel’s voice of pious indignation, as he asked, “Do you call these agricultural gentlemen, and farmers, however excellent and respectable — on which point Heaven forbid that I, &c., &c. — the prisoner’s ‘pares,’ peers, equals, or likes? What single interest, opinion, or motive, have they in common, but the universal one of self-interest, which, in this case, happens to pull in exactly opposite directions? Your Lordship has often animadverted fully and boldly on the practice of allowing a bench of squires to sit in judgment on a poacher; surely it is quite as unjust that agricultural rioters should be tried by a jury of the very class against whom they are accused of rebelling.”

“Perhaps my learned brother would like a jury of rioters?” suggested some Queen’s counsel.

“Upon my word, then, it would be much the fairer plan.”

I wondered whether he would have dared to say as much in the street outside — and relapsed into indifference. I believe there was some long delay, and wrangling about law-quibbles, which seemed likely at one time to quash the whole prosecution, but I was rather glad than sorry to find that it had been overruled. It was all a play, a game of bowls — the bowls happening to be human heads — got up between the lawyers, for the edification of society; and it would have been a pity not to play it out, according to the rules and regulations thereof.

As for the evidence, its tenor may be easily supposed from my story. There were those who could swear to my language at the camp. I was seen accompanying the mob to the farm, and haranguing them. The noise was too great for the witnesses to hear all I said, but they were certain I talked about the sacred name of liberty. The farmer’s wife had seen me run round to the stacks when they were fired — whether just before or just after, she never mentioned. She had seen me running up and down in front of the house, talking loudly, and gesticulating violently; she saw me, too, struggling with another rioter for her husband’s desk; — and the rest of the witnesses, some of whom I am certain I had seen, busy plundering, though they were ready to swear that they had been merely accidental passers-by, seemed to think that they proved their own innocence, and testified their pious indignation, by avoiding carefully any fact which could excuse me. But, somehow, my counsel thought differently; and cross-examined, and bullied, and tormented, and misstated — as he was bound to do; and so one witness after another, clumsy and cowardly enough already, was driven by his engines of torture, as if by a pitiless spell, to deny half that he had deposed truly, and confess a great deal that was utterly false — till confusion became worse confounded, and there seemed no truth anywhere, and no falsehood either, and “naught was everything, and everything was naught;” till I began to have doubts whether the riot had ever occurred at all — and, indeed, doubts of my own identity also, when I had heard the counsel for the crown impute to me personally, as in duty bound, every seditious atrocity which, had been committed either in England or France since 1793. To him, certainly, I did listen tolerably; it was “as good as a play.” Atheism, blasphemy, vitriol-throwing, and community of women, were among my lighter offences — for had I not actually been engaged in a plot for the destruction of property? How did the court know that I had not spent the night before the riot, as “the doctor” and his friends did before the riots of 1839, in drawing lots for the estates of the surrounding gentlemen, with my deluded dupes and victims? — for of course I, and not want of work, had deluded them into rioting; at least, they never would have known that they were starving, if I had not stirred up their evil passions by daring to inform them of that otherwise impalpable fact. I, the only Chartist there? Might there not have been dozens of them? — emissaries from London, dressed up as starving labourers, and rheumatic old women? There were actually traces of a plan for seizing all the ladies in the country, and setting up a seraglio of them in D—— Cathedral. How did the court know that there was not one?

Ay, how indeed? and how did I know either? I really began to question whether the man might not be right after all. The whole theory seemed so horribly coherent — possible, natural. I might have done it, under possession of the devil, and forgotten it in excitement — I might — perhaps I did. And if there, why not elsewhere? Perhaps I had helped Jourdan Coupe-tête at Lyons, and been king of the Munster Anabaptists — why not? What matter? When would this eternity of wigs, and bonnets, and glaring windows, and ear-grinding prate and jargon, as of a diabolic universe of street organs, end — end — end — and I get quietly hanged, and done with it all for ever?

Oh, the horrible length of that day! It seemed to me as if I had been always on my trial, ever since I was born. I wondered at times how many years ago it had all begun. I felt what a far stronger and more single-hearted patriot than I, poor Somerville, says of himself under the torture of the sergeant’s cat, in a passage, whose horrible simplicity and unconscious pathos have haunted me ever since I read it; how, when only fifty out of his hundred lashes had fallen on the bleeding back, “The time since they began was like a long period of life: I felt as if I had lived all the time of my real life in torture, and, that the days when existence had a pleasure, in it were a dream long, long gone by.

The reader may begin to suspect that I was fast going mad; and I believe I was. If he has followed my story with a human heart, he may excuse me of any extreme weakness, if I did at moments totter on the verge of that abyss.

What saved me, I believe now, was the keen, bright look of love and confidence which flashed on me from Crossthwaite’s glittering eyes, when he was called forward as a witness to my character. He spoke out like a man, I hear, that day. But the counsel for the crown tried to silence him triumphantly, by calling on him to confess himself a Chartist; as if a man must needs be a liar and a villain because he holds certain opinions about the franchise! However that was, I heard, the general opinion of the court. And then Crossthwaite lost his temper and called the Queen’s counsel a hired bully, and so went down; having done, as I was told afterwards, no good to me.

And then there followed a passage of tongue fence between Mackaye and some barrister, and great laughter at the barrister’s expense; and then. I heard the old man’s voice rise thin and clear:

“Let him that is without sin amang ye, cast the first stane!”

And as he went down he looked at me — a look full of despair. I never had had a ray of hope from the beginning; but now I began to think whether men suffered much when they were hung, and whether one woke at once into the next life, or had to wait till the body had returned to the dust, and watch the ugly process of one’s own decay. I was not afraid of death — I never experienced that sensation. I am not physically brave. I am as thoroughly afraid of pain as any child can be; but that next world has never offered any prospect to me, save boundless food for my insatiable curiosity.


But at that moment my attorney thrust into my hand a little dirty scrap of paper. “Do you know this man?” I read it.

“SIR — I wull tell all truthe. Mr. Locke is a murdered man if he be hanged. Lev me spek out, for love of the Lord.


No. I never had heard of him; and I let the paper fall.

A murdered man? I had known that all along. Had not the Queen’s counsel been trying all day to murder me, as was their duty, seeing that they got their living thereby?

A few moments after, a labouring man was in the witness-box; and to my astonishment, telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I will not trouble the reader with his details, for they were simply and exactly what I have already stated. He was badgered, bullied, cross-examined, but nothing could shake him. With that dogged honesty, and laconic dignity, which is the good side of the English peasant’s character, he stood manfully to his assertion — that I had done everything that words or actions could do to prevent violence, even to the danger of my own personal safety. He swore to the words which I used when trying to wrest the desk from the man who had stolen it; and when the Queen’s counsel asked him, tauntingly, who had set him on bringing his new story there at the eleventh hour, he answered, equally to the astonishment of his questioner, and of me,

“Muster Locke, hisself.”

“What! the prisoner?” almost screamed the counsellor, who fancied, I suppose, that he had stumbled on a confession of unblushing bribery.

“Yes, he; he there. As he went up over hill to meeting he met my two boys a shep-minding; and, because the cutter was froze, he stop and turn the handle for ’em for a matter of ten minutes; and I was coming up over field, and says I, I’ll hear what that chap’s got to say — there can’t be no harm in going up arter the likes of he; for, says I to myself, a man can’t have got any great wickedness a plotting in he’s head, when he’ll stop a ten minutes to help two boys as he never sot eyes on afore in his life; and I think their honours’ll say the same.”

Whether my reader will agree or not with the worthy fellow, my counsel, I need not say, did, and made full use of his hint. All the previous evidence was now discovered to have corroborated the last witness, except where it had been notoriously overthrown. I was extolled as a miracle of calm benevolence; and black became grey, and grey became spotless white, and the whole feeling of the court seemed changed in my favour; till the little attorney popped up his head and whispered to me:

“By George! that last witness has saved your life.”

To which I answered, “Very well”— and turned stupidly back upon that nightmare thought — was Lillian in the court?


At last, a voice, the judge’s I believe, for it was grave, gentle, almost compassionate, asked us one by one whether we had anything to say in our own defence. I recollect an indistinct murmur from one after another of the poor semi-brutes on my left; and then my attorney looking up to me, made me aware that I was expected to speak. On the moment, somehow, my whole courage returned to me. I felt that I must unburden my heart, now or never. With a sudden effort I roused myself, and looking fixedly and proudly at the reverend face opposite, began:

“The utmost offence which has been proved against me is a few bold words, producing consequences as unexpected as illogical. If the stupid ferocity with which my words were misunderstood, as by a horde of savages rather than Englishmen; — if the moral and physical condition of these prisoners at my side; — of those witnesses who have borne testimony against me, miserable white slaves, miscalled free labourers; — ay, if a single walk through the farms and cottages on which this mischief was bred, affords no excuse for one indignant sentence —”

There she was! There she had been all the time — right opposite to me, close to the judge — cold, bright, curious — smiling! And as our eyes met, she turned away, and whispered gaily something to a young man who sat beside her.

Every drop of blood in my body rushed into my forehead; the court, the windows, and the faces, whirled round and round, and I fell senseless on the floor of the dock.


I next recollect some room or other in the gaol, Mackaye with both my hands in his; and the rough kindly voice of the gaoler congratulating me on having “only got three years.”

“But you didn’t show half a good pluck,” said some one. “There’s two on ’em transported, took it as bold as brass, and thanked the judge for getting ’em out ‘o this starving place ‘free gracious for nothing,” says they.”

“Ah!” quoth the little attorney, rubbing his hands, “you should have seen —— and —— after the row in ‘42! They were the boys for the Bull Ring! Gave a barrister as good as he brought, eh, Mr. Mackaye? My small services, you remember, were of no use, really no use at all — quite ashamed to send in my little account. Managed the case themselves, like two patriotic parties as they were, with a degree of forensic acuteness, inspired by the consciousness of a noble cause — Ahem! You remember, friend M.? Grand triumphs those, eh?”

“Ay,” said Sandy, “I mind them unco weel — they cost me a’ my few savings, mair by token; an’ mony a braw fallow paid for ither folks’ sins that tide. But my puir laddie here’s no made o’ that stuff. He’s ower thin-skinned for a patriot.”

“Ah, well — this little taste of British justice will thicken his hide for him, eh?” And the attorney chuckled and winked. “He’ll come out again as tough as a bull dog, and as surly too. Eh, Mr. Mackaye? — eh?”

“‘Deed, then, I’m unco sair afeard that your opeenion is no a’thegither that improbable,” answered Sandy with a drawl of unusual solemnity.

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