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

Chapter 31.

The New Church.

In a poor suburb of the city, which I could see well enough from my little window, a new Gothic church was building. When I first took up my abode in the cell, it was just begun — the walls had hardly risen above the neighbouring sheds and garden-fences. But month after month I had watched it growing; I had seen one window after another filled with tracery, one buttress after another finished off with its carved pinnacle; then I had watched the skeleton of the roof gradually clothed in tiling; and then the glazing of the windows — some of them painted, I could see, from the iron network which was placed outside them the same day. Then the doors were put up — were they going to finish that handsome tower? No: it was left with its wooden cap, I suppose for further funds. But the nave, and the deep chancel behind it, were all finished, and surmounted by a cross — and beautifully enough the little sanctuary looked, in the virgin-purity of its spotless freestone. For eighteen months I watched it grow before my eyes — and I was still in my cell!

And then there was a grand procession of surplices and lawn sleeves; and among them I fancied I distinguished the old dean’s stately figure, and turned my head away, and looked again, and fancied I distinguished another figure — it must have been mere imagination — the distance was far too great for me to identify any one; but I could not get out of my head the fancy — say rather, the instinct — that it was my cousin’s; and that it was my cousin whom I saw daily after that, coming out and going in-when the bell rang to morning and evening prayers — for there were daily services there, and saint’s day services, and Lent services, and three services on a Sunday, and six or seven on Good Friday and Easter-day. The little musical bell above the chancel-arch seemed always ringing: and still that figure haunted me like a nightmare, ever coming in and going out about its priestly calling — and I still in my cell! If it should be he! — so close to her! I shuddered at the thought; and, just because it was so intolerable, it clung to me, and tormented me, and kept me awake at nights, till I became utterly unable to study quietly, and spent hours at the narrow window, watching for the very figure I loathed to see.

And then a Gothic school-house rose at the churchyard end, and troops of children poured in and out, and women came daily for alms; and when the frosts came on, every morning I saw a crowd, and soup carried away in pitchers, and clothes and blankets given away; the giving seemed endless, boundless; and I thought of the times of the Roman Empire and the “sportula,” when the poor had got to live upon the alms of the rich, more and more, year by year — till they devoured their own devourers, and the end came; and I shuddered. And yet it was a pleasant sight, as every new church is to the healthy-minded man, let his religious opinions be what they may. A fresh centre of civilization, mercy, comfort for weary hearts, relief from frost and hunger; a fresh centre of instruction, humanizing, disciplining, however meagre in my eyes, to hundreds of little savage spirits; altogether a pleasant sight, even to me there in my cell. And I used to wonder at the wasted power of the Church — her almost entire monopoly of the pulpits, the schools, the alms of England; and then thank Heaven, somewhat prematurely, that she knew and used so little her vast latent power for the destruction of liberty.

Or for its realization?

Ay, that is the question! We shall not see it solved — at least, I never shall.

But still that figure haunted me; all through that winter I saw it, chatting with old women, patting children’s heads, walking to the church with ladies; sometimes with a tiny, tripping figure. — I did not dare to let myself fancy who that might be.


December passed, and January came. I had now only two months more before my deliverance. One day I seemed to myself to have passed a whole life in that narrow room; and the next, the years and months seemed short and blank as a night’s sleep on waking; and there was no salient point in all my memory, since that last sight of Lillian’s smile, and the faces and the window whirling round me as I fell.

At last a letter came from Mackaye. “Ye speired for news o’ your cousin — an’ I find he’s a neebour o’ yours; ca’d to a new kirk i’ the city o’ your captivity — an’ na stickit minister he makes, forbye he’s ane o’ these new Puseyite sectarians, to judge by your uncle’s report. I met the auld bailie-bodie on the street, and was gaun to pass him by, but he was sae fou o’ good news he could na but stop an’ ha’ a crack wi’ me on politics; for we ha’ helpit thegither in certain municipal clamjamfries o’ late. An’ he told me your cousin wins honour fast, an’ maun surely die a bishop — puir bairn! An’ besides that he’s gaun to be married the spring. I dinna mind the leddy’s name; but there’s tocher wi’ lass o’ his I’ll warrant. He’s na laird o’ Cockpen, for a penniless lass wi’ a long pedigree.”

As I sat meditating over this news — which made the torment of suspicion and suspense more intolerable than ever — behold a postscript added some two days after.

“Oh! Oh! Sic news! gran news! news to make baith the ears o’ him that heareth it to tingle. God is God, an’ no the deevil after a’! Louis Philippe is doun! — doun, doun, like a dog, and the republic’s proclaimed, an’ the auld villain here in England, they say, a wanderer an’ a beggar. I ha’ sent ye the paper o’ the day. Ps. — 73, 37, 12. Oh, the Psalms are full o’t! Never say the Bible’s no true, mair. I’ve been unco faithless mysel’, God forgive me! I got grieving to see the wicked in sic prosperity. I did na gang into the sanctuary eneugh, an’ therefore I could na see the end of these men — how He does take them up suddenly after all, an’ cast them doun: vanish they do, perish, an’ come to a fearful end. Yea, like as a dream when one awaketh, so shalt thou make their image to vanish out of the city. Oh, but it’s a day o’ God! An’ yet I’m sair afraid for they puir feckless French. I ha’ na faith, ye ken, in the Celtic blude, an’ its spirit o’ lees. The Saxon spirit o’ covetize is a grewsome house-fiend, and sae’s our Norse speerit o’ shifts an’ dodges; but the spirit o’ lees is warse. Puir lustful Reubens that they are! — unstable as water, they shall not excel. Well, well — after all, there is a God that judgeth the earth; an’ when a man kens that, he’s learnt eneugh to last him till he dies.”

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