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

Chapter 5.

The Sceptic’s Mother.

My readers will perceive from what I have detailed, that I was not likely to get any positive ground of comfort from Crossthwaite; and from within myself there was daily less and less hope of any. Daily the struggle became more intolerable between my duty to my mother and my duty to myself — that inward thirst for mental self-improvement, which, without any clear consciousness of its sanctity or inspiration, I felt, and could not help feeling, that I must follow. No doubt it was very self-willed and ambitious of me to do that which rich men’s sons are flogged for not doing, and rewarded with all manner of prizes, scholarships, fellowships for doing. But the nineteenth year is a time of life at which self-will is apt to exhibit itself in other people besides tailors; and those religious persons who think it no sin to drive their sons on through classics and mathematics, in hopes of gaining them a station in life, ought not to be very hard upon me for driving myself on through the same path without any such selfish hope of gain — though perhaps the very fact of my having no wish or expectation of such advantage will constitute in their eyes my sin and folly, and prove that I was following the dictates merely of a carnal lust, and not of a proper worldly prudence. I really do not wish to be flippant or sneering. I have seen the evil of it as much as any man, in myself and in my own class. But there are excuses for such a fault in the working man. It does sour and madden him to be called presumptuous and ambitious for the very same aspirations which are lauded up to the skies in the sons of the rich — unless, indeed, he will do one little thing, and so make his peace with society. If he will desert his own class; if he will try to become a sham gentleman, a parasite, and, if he can, a Mammonite, the world will compliment him on his noble desire to “rise in life.” He will have won his spurs, and be admitted into that exclusive pale of knighthood, beyond which it is a sin to carry arms even in self-defence. But if the working genius dares to be true to his own class — to stay among them — to regenerate them — to defend them — to devote his talents to those among whom God placed him and brought him up — then he is the demagogue, the incendiary, the fanatic, the dreamer. So you would have the monopoly of talent, too, exclusive worldlings? And yet you pretend to believe in the miracle of Pentecost, and the religion that was taught by the carpenter’s Son, and preached across the world by fishermen!

I was several times minded to argue the question out with my mother, and assert for myself the same independence of soul which I was now earning for my body by my wages. Once I had resolved to speak to her that very evening; but, strangely enough, happening to open the Bible, which, alas! I did seldom at that time, my eye fell upon the chapter where Jesus, after having justified to His parents His absence in the Temple, while hearing the doctors and asking them questions, yet went down with them to Nazareth after all, and was subject unto them. The story struck me vividly as a symbol of my own duties. But on reading further, I found more than one passage which seemed to me to convey a directly opposite lesson, where His mother and His brethren, fancying Him mad, attempted to interfere with His labours, and asserting their family rights as reasons for retaining Him, met with a peremptory rebuff. I puzzled my head for some time to find out which of the two cases was the more applicable to my state of self-development. The notion of asking for teaching from on high on such a point had never crossed me. Indeed, if it had, I did not believe sufficiently either in the story or in the doctrines connected with it, to have tried such a resource. And so, as may be supposed, my growing self-conceit decided for me that the latter course was the fitting one.

And yet I had not energy to carry it out. I was getting so worn out in body and mind from continual study and labour, stinted food and want of sleep, that I could not face the thought of an explosion, such as I knew must ensue, and I lingered on in the same unhappy state, becoming more and more morose in manner to my mother, while I was as assiduous as ever in all filial duties. But I had no pleasure in home. She seldom spoke to me. Indeed, there was no common topic about which we could speak. Besides, ever since that fatal Sunday evening, I saw that she suspected me and watched me. I had good reason to believe that she set spies upon my conduct. Poor dear mother! God forbid that I should accuse thee for a single care of thine, for a single suspicion even, prompted as they all were by a mother’s anxious love. I would never have committed these things to paper, hadst thou not been far beyond the reach or hearing of them; and only now, in hopes that they may serve as a warning, in some degree to mothers, but ten times more to children. For I sinned against thee, deeply and shamefully, in thought and deed, while thou didst never sin against me; though all thy caution did but hasten the fatal explosion which came, and perhaps must have come, under some form or other, in any case.

I had been detained one night in the shop till late; and on my return my mother demanded, in a severe tone, the reason of my stay; and on my telling her, answered as severely that she did not believe me; that she had too much reason to suspect that I had been with bad companions.

“Who dared to put such a thought into your head?”

She “would not give up her authorities, but she had too much reason to believe them.”

Again I demanded the name of my slanderer, and was refused it. And then. I burst out, for the first time in my life, into a real fit of rage with her. I cannot tell how I dared to say what I did, but I was weak, nervous, irritable — my brain excited beyond all natural tension. Above all, I felt that she was unjust to me; and my good conscience, as well as my pride, rebelled.

“You have never trusted me,” I cried, “you have watched me —”

“Did you not deceive me once already?”

“And if I did,” I answered, more and more excited, “have I not slaved for you, stinted myself of clothes to pay your rent? Have I not run to and fro for you like a slave, while I knew all the time you did not respect me or trust me? If you had only treated me as a child and an idiot, I could have borne it. But you have been thinking of me all the while as an incarnate fiend — dead in trespasses and sins — a child of wrath and the devil. What right have you to be astonished if I should do my father’s works?”

“You may be ignorant of vital religion,” she answered; “and you may insult me. But if you make a mock of God’s Word, you leave my house. If you can laugh at religion, you can deceive me.”

The pent-up scepticism of years burst forth.

“Mother,” I said, “don’t talk to me about religion, and election, and conversion, and all that — I don’t believe one word of it. Nobody does, except good kind people —(like you, alas! I was going to say, but the devil stopped the words at my lips)— who must needs have some reason to account for their goodness. That Bowyer — he’s a soft heart by nature, and as he is, so he does — religion has had nothing to do with that, any more than it has with that black-faced, canting scoundrel who has been telling you lies about me. Much his heart is changed. He carries sneak and slanderer written in his face — and sneak and slanderer he will be, elect or none. Religion? Nobody believes in it. The rich don’t; or they wouldn’t fill their churches up with pews, and shut the poor out, all the time they are calling them brothers. They believe the gospel? Then why do they leave the men who make their clothes to starve in such hells on earth as our workroom? No more do the tradespeople believe in it; or they wouldn’t go home from sermon to sand the sugar, and put sloe-leaves in the tea, and send out lying puffs of their vamped-up goods, and grind the last farthing out of the poor creatures who rent their wretched stinking houses. And as for the workmen — they laugh at it all, I can tell you. Much good religion is doing for them! You may see it’s fit only for women and children — for go where you will, church or chapel, you see hardly anything but bonnets and babies! I don’t believe a word of it — once and for all. I’m old enough to think for myself, and a free-thinker I will be, and believe nothing but what I know and understand.”

I had hardly spoken the words, when I would have given worlds to recall them — but it was to be-and it was.

Sternly she looked at me full in the face, till my eyes dropped before her gaze. Then she spoke steadily and slowly:

“Leave this house this moment. You are no son of mine henceforward. Do you think I will have my daughter polluted by the company of an infidel and a blasphemer?”

“I will go,” I answered fiercely; “I can get my own living at all events!” And before I had time to think, I had rushed upstairs, packed up my bundle, not forgetting the precious books, and was on my way through the frosty, echoing streets, under the cold glare of the winter’s moon.

I had gone perhaps half a mile, when the thought of home rushed over me — the little room where I had spent my life — the scene of all my childish joys and sorrows — which I should never see again, for I felt that my departure was for ever. Then I longed to see my mother once again — not to speak to her — for I was at once too proud and too cowardly to do that — but to have a look at her through the window. One look — for all the while, though I was boiling over with rage and indignation, I felt that it was all on the surface — that in the depths of our hearts I loved her and she loved me. And yet I wished to be angry, wished to hate her. Strange contradiction of the flesh and spirit!

Hastily and silently I retraced my steps to the house. The gate was padlocked. I cautiously stole over the palings to the window — the shutter was closed and fast. I longed to knock — I lifted my hand to the door, and dare not: indeed, I knew that it was useless, in my dread of my mother’s habit of stern determination. That room — that mother I never saw again. I turned away; sickened at heart, I was clambering back again, looking behind me towards the window, when I felt a strong grip on my collar, and turning round, had a policeman’s lantern flashed in my face.

“Hullo, young’un, and what do you want here?” with a strong emphasis, after the fashion of policemen, on all his pronouns.

“Hush! or you’ll alarm my mother!”

“Oh! eh! Forgot the latch-key, you sucking Don Juan, that’s it, is it? Late home from the Victory?”

I told him simply how the case stood, and entreated him to get me a night’s lodging, assuring him that my mother would not admit me, or I ask to be admitted.

The policeman seemed puzzled, but after scratching his hat in lieu of his head for some seconds, replied,

“This here is the dodge — you goes outside and lies down on the kerb-stone; whereby I spies you a-sleeping in the streets, contrary to Act o’ Parliament; whereby it is my duty to take you to the station-house; whereby you gets a night’s lodging free gracious for nothing, and company perwided by her Majesty.”

“Oh, not to the station-house!” I cried in shame and terror.

“Werry well; then you must keep moving all night continually, whereby you avoids the hact; or else you goes to a twopenny-rope shop and gets a lie down. And your bundle you’d best leave at my house. Twopenny-rope society a’n’t particular. I’m going off my beat; you walk home with me and leave your traps. Everybody knows me — Costello, V 21, that’s my number.”

So on I went with the kind-hearted man, who preached solemnly to me all the way on the fifth commandment. But I heard very little of it; for before I had proceeded a quarter of a mile, a deadly faintness and dizziness came over me, I staggered, and fell against the railings.

“And have you been drinking arter all?”

“I never — a drop in my life — nothing but bread-and-water this fortnight.”

And it was true. I had been paying for my own food, and had stinted myself to such an extent, that between starvation, want of sleep, and over-exertion, I was worn to a shadow, and the last drop had filled the cup; the evening’s scene and its consequences had been too much for me, and in the middle of an attempt to explain matters to the policeman, I dropped on the pavement, bruising my face heavily.

He picked me up, put me under one arm and my bundle under the other, and was proceeding on his march, when three men came rollicking up.

“Hullo, Poleax — Costello — What’s that? Work for us? A demp unpleasant body?”

“Oh, Mr. Bromley, sir! Hope you’re well, sir! Werry rum go this here, sir! I finds this cove in the streets. He says his mother turned him out o’ doors. He seems very fair spoken, and very bad in he’s head, and very bad in he’s chest, and very bad in he’s legs, he does. And I can’t come to no conclusions respecting my conduct in this here case, nohow!”

“Memorialize the Health of Towns Commission,” suggested one.

“Bleed him in the great toe,” said the second.

“Put a blister on the back of his left eye-ball,” said a third.

“Case of male asterisks,” observed the first. “Rj. Aquæ pumpis puræ quantum suff. Applicatur exterò pro re natâ. J. Bromley, M.D., and don’t he wish he may get through!”—

“Tip us your daddle, my boy,” said the second speaker. “I’ll tell you what, Bromley, this fellow’s very bad. He’s got no more pulse than the Pimlico sewer. Run in into the next pot’us. Here — you lay hold of him, Bromley — that last round with the cabman nearly put my humerus out.”

The huge, burly, pea-jacketed medical student — for such I saw at once he was — laid hold of me on the right tenderly enough, and walked me off between him and the policeman.

I fell again into a faintness, from which I was awakened by being shoved through the folding-doors of a gin-shop, into a glare of light and hubbub of blackguardism, and placed on a settle, while my conductor called out —

“Pots round, Mary, and a go of brandy hot with, for the patient. Here, young’un, toss it off, it’ll make your hair grow.”

I feebly answered that I never had drunk anything stronger than water.

“High time to begin, then; no wonder you’re so ill. Well, if you won’t, I’ll make you —”

And taking my head under his arm, he seized me by the nose, while another poured the liquor down my throat — and certainly it revived me at once.

A drunken drab pulled another drunken, drab off the settle to make room for the “poor young man”; and I sat there with a confused notion that something strange and dreadful had happened to me, while the party drained their respective quarts of porter, and talked over the last boat-race with the Leander.

“Now then, gen’l’men,” said the policeman, ‘if you think he’s recovered, we’ll take him home to his mother; she ought for to take him in, surely.”

“Yes, if she has as much heart in her as a dried walnut.”

But I resisted stoutly; though I longed to vindicate my mother’s affection, yet I could not face her. I entreated to be taken to the station-house; threatened, in my desperation, to break the bar glasses, which, like Doll Tearsheet’s abuse, only elicited from the policeman a solemn “Very well”; and under the unwonted excitement of the brandy, struggled so fiercely, and talked so incoherently, that the medical students interfered.

“We shall have this fellow in phrenitis, or laryngitis, or dothenenteritis, or some other itis, before long, if he’s aggravated.”

“And whichever it is, it’ll kill him. He has no more stamina left than a yard of pump water.”

“I should consider him chargeable to the parish,” suggested the bar-keeper.

“Exactually so, my Solomon of licensed victuallers. Get a workhouse order for him, Costello.”

“And I should consider, also, sir,” said the licensed victualler, with increased importance, “having been a guardian myself, and knowing the hact, as the parish couldn’t refuse, because they’re in power to recover all hexpenses out of his mother.”

“To be sure; it’s all the unnatural old witch’s fault.”

“No, it is not,” said I, faintly.

“Wait till your opinion’s asked, young’un. Go kick up the authorities, policeman.”

“Now, I’ll just tell you how that’ll work, gemmen,” answered the policeman, solemnly. “I goes to the overseer — werry good sort o’ man — but he’s in bed. I knocks for half an hour. He puts his nightcap out o’ windy, and sends me to the relieving-officer. Werry good sort o’ man he too; but he’s in bed. I knocks for another half-hour. He puts his nightcap out o’ windy — sends me to the medical officer for a certificate. Medical officer’s gone to a midwifery case. I hunts him for an hour or so. He’s got hold of a babby with three heads, or summat else; and two more women a-calling out for him like blazes. ‘He’ll come tomorrow morning.’ Now, I just axes your opinion of that there most procrastinationest go.”

The big student, having cursed the parochial authorities in general, offered to pay for my night’s lodging at the public-house. The good man of the house demurred at first, but relented on being reminded of the value of a medical student’s custom: whereon, without more ado, two of the rough diamonds took me between them, carried me upstairs, undressed me, and put me to bed, as tenderly as if they had been women.

“He’ll have the tantrums before morning, I’m afraid,” said one.

“Very likely to turn to typhus,” said the other.

“Well, I suppose — it’s a horrid bore, but

“What must be must; man is but dust,

If you can’t get crumb, you must just eat crust.

“Send me up a go of hot with, and I’ll sit up with him till he’s asleep, dead, or better.”

“Well, then, I’ll stay too; we may just as well make a night of it here as well as anywhere else.”

And he pulled a short black pipe out of his pocket, and sat down to meditate with his feet on the hobs of the empty grate; the other man went down for the liquor; while I, between the brandy and exhaustion, fell fast asleep, and never stirred till I woke the next morning with a racking headache, and saw the big student standing by my bedside, having, as I afterwards heard, sat by me till four in the morning.

“Hallo, young’un, come to your senses? Headache, eh? Slightly comato-crapulose? We’ll give you some soda and salvolatile, and I’ll pay for your breakfast.”

And so he did, and when he was joined by his companions on their way to St. George’s, they were very anxious, having heard my story, to force a few shillings on me “for luck,” which, I need not say, I peremptorily refused, assuring them that I could and would get my own living, and never take a farthing from any man.

“That’s a plucky dog, though he’s a tailor,” I heard them say, as, after overwhelming them with thanks, and vowing, amid shouts of laughter, to repay them every farthing I had cost them, I took my way, sick and stunned, towards my dear old Sandy Mackaye’s street.

Rough diamonds indeed! I have never met you again, but I have not forgotten you. Your early life may be a coarse, too often a profligate one — but you know the people, and the people know you: and your tenderness and care, bestowed without hope of repayment, cheers daily many a poor soul in hospital wards and fever-cellars — to meet its reward some day at the people’s hands. You belong to us at heart, as the Paris barricades can tell. Alas! for the society which stifles in after-life too many of your better feelings, by making you mere flunkeys and parasites, dependent for your livelihood on the caprices and luxuries of the rich.

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