My poor mother, not singular in her mistake, had sent me forth, out of an unconscious paradise into the evil world, without allowing me even the sad strength which comes from eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; she expected in me the innocence of the dove, as if that was possible on such an earth as this, without the wisdom of the serpent to support it. She forbade me strictly to stop and look into the windows of print shops, and I strictly obeyed her. But she forbade me, too, to read any book which I had not first shown her; and that restriction, reasonable enough in the abstract, practically meant, in the case of a poor boy like myself, reading no books at all. And then came my first act of disobedience, the parent of many more. Bitterly have I repented it, and bitterly been punished. Yet, strange contradiction! I dare not wish it undone. But such is the great law of life. Punished for our sins we surely are; and yet how often they become our blessings, teaching us that which nothing else can teach us! Nothing else? One says so. Rich parents, I suppose, say so, when they send their sons to public schools "to learn life." We working men have too often no other teacher than our own errors. But surely, surely, the rich ought to have been able to discover some mode of education in which knowledge may be acquired without the price of conscience, Yet they have not; and we must not complain of them for not giving such a one to the working man when they have not yet even given it to their own children.
In a street through which I used to walk homeward was an old book shop, piled and fringed outside and in with books of every age, size, and colour. And here I at last summoned courage to stop, and timidly and stealthily taking out some volume whose title attracted me, snatch hastily a few pages and hasten on, half fearful of being called on to purchase, half ashamed of a desire which I fancied every one else considered as unlawful as my mother did. Sometimes I was lucky enough to find the same volume several days running, and to take up the subject where I had left it off; and thus I contrived to hurry through a great deal of "Childe Harold," "Lara," and the "Corsair"—a new world of wonders to me. They fed, those poems, both my health and my diseases; while they gave me, little of them as I could understand, a thousand new notions about scenery and man, a sense of poetic melody and luxuriance as yet utterly unknown. They chimed in with all my discontent, my melancholy, my thirst after any life of action and excitement, however frivolous, insane, or even worse. I forgot the Corsair's sinful trade in his free and daring life; rather, I honestly eliminated the bad element—in which, God knows, I took no delight—and kept the good one. However that might be, the innocent—guilty pleasure grew on me day by day. Innocent, because human—guilty, because disobedient. But have I not paid the penalty?
One evening, however, I fell accidentally on a new book—"The Life and Poems of J. Bethune." I opened the story of his life—became interested, absorbed—and there I stood, I know not how long, on the greasy pavement, heedless of the passers who thrust me right and left, reading by the flaring gas-light that sad history of labour, sorrow, and death.—How the Highland cotter, in spite of disease, penury, starvation itself, and the daily struggle to earn his bread by digging and ditching, educated himself—how he toiled unceasingly with his hands—how he wrote his poems in secret on dirty scraps of paper and old leaves of books—how thus he wore himself out, manful and godly, "bating not a jot of heart or hope," till the weak flesh would bear no more; and the noble spirit, unrecognized by the lord of the soil, returned to God who gave it. I seemed to see in his history a sad presage of my own. If he, stronger, more self-restrained, more righteous far than ever I could be, had died thus unknown, unassisted, in the stern battle with social disadvantages, what must be my lot?
And tears of sympathy, rather than of selfish fear, fell fast upon the book.
A harsh voice from the inner darkness of the shop startled me.
"Hoot, laddie, ye'll better no spoil my books wi' greeting ower them."
I replaced the book hastily, and was hurrying on, but the same voice called me back in a more kindly tone.
"Stop a wee, my laddie. I'm no angered wi' ye. Come in, and we'll just ha' a bit crack thegither."
I went in, for there was a geniality in the tone to which I was unaccustomed, and something whispered to me the hope of an adventure, as indeed it proved to be, if an event deserves that name which decided the course of my whole destiny.
"What war ye greeting about, then? What was the book?"
"'Bethune's Life and Poems,' sir," I said. "And certainly they did affect me very much."
"Affect ye? Ah, Johnnie Bethune, puir fellow! Ye maunna take on about sic like laddies, or ye'll greet your e'en out o' your head. It's mony a braw man beside Johnnie Bethune has gane Johnnie-Bethune's gate."
Though unaccustomed to the Scotch accent, I could make out enough of this speech to be in nowise consoled by it. But the old man turned the conversation by asking me abruptly my name, and trade, and family.
"Hum, hum, widow, eh? puir body! work at Smith's shop, eh? Ye'll ken John Crossthwaite, then? ay? hum, hum; an' ye're desirous o' reading books? vara weel—let's see your cawpabilities."
And he pulled me into the dim light of the little back window, shoved back his spectacles, and peering at me from underneath them, began, to my great astonishment, to feel my head all over.
"Hum, hum, a vara gude forehead—vara gude indeed. Causative organs large, perceptive ditto. Imagination superabundant—mun be heeded. Benevolence, conscientiousness, ditto, ditto. Caution—no that large—might be developed," with a quiet chuckle, "under a gude Scot's education. Just turn your head into profile, laddie. Hum, hum. Back o' the head a'thegither defective. Firmness sma'—love of approbation unco big. Beware o' leeing, as ye live; ye'll need it. Philoprogenitiveness gude. Ye'll be fond o' bairns, I'm guessing?"
"Very," answered I, in utter dismay at what seemed to me a magical process for getting at all my secret failings.
"Hum, hum! Amative and combative organs sma'—a general want o' healthy animalism, as my freen' Mr. Deville wad say. And ye want to read books?"
I confessed my desire, without, alas! confessing that my mother had forbidden it.
"Vara weel; then books I'll lend ye, after I've had a crack wi' Crossthwaite aboot ye, gin I find his opinion o' ye satisfactory. Come to me the day after to-morrow. An' mind, here are my rules:—a' damage done to a book to be paid for, or na mair books lent; ye'll mind to take no books without leave; specially ye'll mind no to read in bed o' nights,—industrious folks ought to be sleeping' betimes, an' I'd no be a party to burning puir weans in their beds; and lastly, ye'll observe not to read mair than five books at once."
I assured him that I thought such a thing impossible; but he smiled in his saturnine way, and said—
"We'll see this day fortnight. Now, then, I've observed ye for a month past over that aristocratic Byron's poems. And I'm willing to teach the young idea how to shoot—but no to shoot itself; so ye'll just leave alane that vinegary, soul-destroying trash, and I'll lend ye, gin I hear a gude report of ye, 'The Paradise Lost,' o' John Milton—a gran' classic model; and for the doctrine o't, it's just aboot as gude as ye'll hear elsewhere the noo. So gang your gate, and tell John Crossthwaite, privately, auld Sandy Mackaye wad like to see him the morn's night."
I went home in wonder and delight. Books! books! books! I should have my fill of them at last. And when I said my prayers at night, I thanked God for this unexpected boon; and then remembered that my mother had forbidden it. That thought checked the thanks, but not the pleasure. Oh, parents! are there not real sins enough in the world already, without your defiling it, over and above, by inventing new ones?
That day fortnight came,—and the old Scotchman's words came true. Four books of his I had already, and I came in to borrow a fifth; whereon he began with a solemn chuckle:
"Eh, laddie, laddie, I've been treating ye as the grocers do their new prentices. They first gie the boys three days' free warren among the figs and the sugar-candy, and they get scunnered wi' sweets after that. Noo, then, my lad, ye've just been reading four books in three days—and here's a fifth. Ye'll no open this again."
"Oh!" I cried, piteously enough, "just let me finish what I am reading. I'm in the middle of such a wonderful account of the Hornitos of Jurullo."
"Hornets or wasps, a swarm o' them ye're like to have at this rate; and a very bad substitute ye'll find them for the Attic bee. Now tak' tent. I'm no in the habit of speaking without deliberation, for it saves a man a great deal of trouble in changing his mind. If ye canna traduce to me a page o' Virgil by this day three months, ye read no more o' my books. Desultory reading is the bane o' lads. Ye maun begin with self-restraint and method, my man, gin ye intend to gie yoursel' a liberal education. So I'll just mak' you a present of an auld Latin grammar, and ye maun begin where your betters ha' begun before you."
"But who will teach me Latin?"
"Hoot, man! who'll teach a man anything except himsel'? It's only gentlefolks and puir aristocrat bodies that go to be spoilt wi' tutors and pedagogues, cramming and loading them wi' knowledge, as ye'd load a gun, to shoot it all out again, just as it went down, in a college examination, and forget all aboot it after."
"Ah!" I sighed, "if I could have gone to college!"
"What for, then? My father was a Hieland farmer, and yet he was a weel learned man: and 'Sandy, my lad,' he used to say, 'a man kens just as much as he's taught himsel', and na mair. So get wisdom; and wi' all your getting, get understanding.' And so I did. And mony's the Greek exercise I've written in the cowbyres. And mony's the page o' Virgil, too, I've turned into good Dawric Scotch to ane that's dead and gane, poor hizzie, sitting under the same plaid, with the sheep feeding round us, up among the hills, looking out ower the broad blue sea, and the wee haven wi' the fishing cobles—"
There was a long solemn pause. I cannot tell why, but I loved the man from that moment; and I thought, too, that he began to love me. Those few words seemed a proof of confidence, perhaps all the deeper, because accidental and unconscious.
I took the Virgil which he lent me, with Hamilton's literal translation between the lines, and an old tattered Latin grammar; I felt myself quite a learned man—actually the possessor of a Latin book! I regarded as something almost miraculous the opening of this new field for my ambition. Not that I was consciously, much less selfishly, ambitious. I had no idea as yet to be anything but a tailor to the end; to make clothes—perhaps in a less infernal atmosphere—but still to make clothes and live thereby. I did not suspect that I possessed powers above the mass. My intense longing after knowledge had been to me like a girl's first love—a thing to be concealed from every eye—to be looked at askance even by myself, delicious as it was, with holy shame and trembling. And thus it was not cowardice merely, but natural modesty, which put me on a hundred plans of concealing my studies from my mother, and even from my sister.
I slept in a little lean-to garret at the back of the house, some ten feet long by six wide. I could just stand upright against the inner wall, while the roof on the other side ran down to the floor. There was no fireplace in it, or any means of ventilation. No wonder I coughed all night accordingly, and woke about two every morning with choking throat and aching head. My mother often said that the room was "too small for a Christian to sleep in, but where could she get a better?"
Such was my only study. I could not use it as such, however, at night without discovery; for my mother carefully looked in every evening, to see that my candle was out. But when my kind cough woke me, I rose, and creeping like a mouse about the room—for my mother and sister slept in the next chamber, and every sound was audible through the narrow partition—I drew my darling books out from under a board of the floor, one end of which I had gradually loosened at odd minutes, and with them a rushlight, earned by running on messages, or by taking bits of work home, and finishing them for my fellows.
No wonder that with this scanty rest, and this complicated exertion of hands, eyes, and brain, followed by the long dreary day's work of the shop, my health began to fail; my eyes grew weaker and weaker; my cough became more acute; my appetite failed me daily. My mother noticed the change, and questioned me about it, affectionately enough. But I durst not, alas! tell the truth. It was not one offence, but the arrears of months of disobedience which I should have had to confess; and so arose infinite false excuses, and petty prevarications, which embittered and clogged still more my already overtasked spirit. About my own ailments—formidable as I believed they were—I never had a moment's anxiety. The expectation of early death was as unnatural to me as it is, I suspect, to almost all. I die? Had I not hopes, plans, desires, infinite? Could I die while they were unfulfilled? Even now, I do not believe I shall die yet. I will not believe it—but let that pass.
Yes, let that pass. Perhaps I have lived long enough—longer than many a grey-headed man.
There is a race of mortals who become Old in their youth, and die ere middle age.
And might not those days of mine then have counted as months?—those days when, before starting forth to walk two miles to the shop at six o'clock in the morning, I sat some three or four hours shivering on my bed, putting myself into cramped and painful postures, not daring even to cough, lest my mother should fancy me unwell, and come in to see me, poor dear soul!—my eyes aching over the page, my feet wrapped up in the bedclothes, to keep them from the miserable pain of the cold; longing, watching, dawn after dawn, for the kind summer mornings, when I should need no candlelight. Look at the picture awhile, ye comfortable folks, who take down from your shelves what books you like best at the moment, and then lie back, amid prints and statuettes, to grow wise in an easy-chair, with a blazing fire and a camphine lamp. The lower classes uneducated! Perhaps you would be so too, if learning cost you the privation which it costs some of them.
But this concealment could not last. My only wonder is, that I continued to get whole months of undiscovered study. One morning, about four o'clock, as might have been expected, my mother heard me stirring, came in, and found me sitting crosslegged on my bed, stitching away, indeed, with all my might, but with a Virgil open before me.
She glanced at the book, clutched it with one hand and my arm with the other, and sternly asked,
"Where did you get this heathen stuff?"
A lie rose to my lips; but I had been so gradually entangled in the loathed meshes of a system of concealment, and consequent prevarication, that I felt as if one direct falsehood would ruin for ever my fast-failing self-respect, and I told her the whole truth. She took the book and left the room. It was Saturday morning, and I spent two miserable days, for she never spoke a word to me till the two ministers had made their appearance, and drank their tea on Sunday evening: then at last she opened:
"And now, Mr. Wigginton, what account have you of this Mr. Mackaye, who has seduced my unhappy boy from the paths of obedience?"
"I am sorry to say, madam," answered the dark man, with a solemn snuffle, "that he proves to be a most objectionable and altogether unregenerate character. He is, as I am informed, neither more nor less than a Chartist, and an open blasphemer."
"He is not!" I interrupted, angrily. "He has told me more about God, and given me better advice, than any human being, except my mother."
"Ah! madam, so thinks the unconverted heart, ignorant that the god of the Deist is not the God of the Bible—a consuming fire to all but His beloved elect; the god of the Deist, unhappy youth, is a mere self-invented, all-indulgent phantom—a will-o'-the-wisp, deluding the unwary, as he has deluded you, into the slough of carnal reason and shameful profligacy."
"Do you mean to call me a profligate?" I retorted fiercely, for my blood was up, and I felt I was fighting for all which I prized in the world: "if you do, you lie. Ask my mother when I ever disobeyed her before? I have never touched a drop of anything stronger than water; I have slaved over-hours to pay for my own candle, I have!—I have no sins to accuse myself of, and neither you nor any person know of any. Do you call me a profligate because I wish to educate myself and rise in life?"
"Ah!" groaned my poor mother to herself, "still unconvinced of sin!"
"The old Adam, my dear madam, you see,—standing, as he always does, on his own filthy rags of works, while all the imaginations of his heart are only evil continually. Listen to me, poor sinner—"
"I will not listen to you," I cried, the accumulated disgust of years bursting out once and for all, "for I hate and despise you, eating my poor mother here out of house and home. You are one of those who creep into widows' houses, and for pretence make long prayers. You, sir, I will hear," I went on, turning to the dear old man who had sat by shaking his white locks with a sad and puzzled air, "for I love you."
"My dear sister Locke," he began, "I really think sometimes—that is, ahem—with your leave, brother—I am almost disposed—but I should wish to defer to your superior zeal—yet, at the same time, perhaps, the desire for information, however carnal in itself, may be an instrument in the Lord's hands—you know what I mean. I always thought him a gracious youth, madam, didn't you? And perhaps—I only observe it in passing—the Lord's people among the dissenting connexions are apt to undervalue human learning as a means—of course, I mean, only as a means. It is not generally known, I believe, that our reverend Puritan patriarchs, Howe and Baxter, Owen and many more, were not altogether unacquainted with heathen authors; nay, that they may have been called absolutely learned men. And some of our leading ministers are inclined—no doubt they will be led rightly in so important a matter—to follow the example of the Independents in educating their young ministers, and turning Satan's weapons of heathen mythology against himself, as St. Paul is said to have done. My dear boy, what books have you now got by you of Mr. Mackaye's?"
"Milton's Poems and a Latin Virgil."
"Ah!" groaned the dark man; "will poetry, will Latin save an immortal soul?"
"I'll tell you what, sir; you say yourself that it depends on God's absolute counsel whether I am saved or not. So, if I am elect, I shall be saved whatever I do; and if I am not, I shall be damned whatever I do; and in the mean time you had better mind your own business, and let me do the best I can for this life, as the next is all settled for me."
This flippant, but after all not unreasonable speech, seemed to silence the man; and I took the opportunity of running up-stairs and bringing down my Milton. The old man was speaking as I re-entered.
"And you know, my dear madam, Mr. Milton was a true converted man, and a Puritan."
"He was Oliver Cromwell's secretary," I added.
"Did he teach you to disobey your mother?" asked my mother.
I did not answer; and the old man, after turning over a few leaves, as if he knew the book well, looked up.
"I think, madam, you might let the youth keep these books, if he will promise, as I am sure he will, to see no more of Mr. Mackaye."
I was ready to burst out crying, but I made up my mind and answered,
"I must see him once again, or he will think me so ungrateful. He is the best friend that I ever had, except you, mother. Besides, I do not know if he will lend me any, after this."
My mother looked at the old minister, and then gave a sullen assent.
"Promise me only to see him once—but I cannot trust you. You have deceived me once, Alton, and you may again!"
"I shall not, I shall not," I answered proudly. "You do not know me"—and I spoke true.
"You do not know yourself, my poor dear foolish child!" she replied—and that was true too.
"And now, dear friends," said the dark man, "let us join in offering up a few words of special intercession."
We all knelt down, and I soon discovered that by the special intercession was meant a string of bitter and groundless slanders against poor me, twisted into the form of a prayer for my conversion, "if it were God's will." To which I responded with a closing "Amen," for which I was sorry afterwards, when I recollected that it was said in merely insolent mockery. But the little faith I had was breaking up fast—not altogether, surely, by my own fault. [Footnote: The portraits of the minister and the missionary are surely exceptions to their class, rather than the average. The Baptists have had their Andrew Fuller and Robert Hall, and among missionaries Dr. Carey, and noble spirits in plenty. But such men as those who excited Alton Locke's disgust are to be met with, in every sect; in the Church of England, and in the Church of Rome. And it is a real and fearful scandal to the young, to see such men listened to as God's messengers, in spite of their utter want of any manhood or virtue, simply because they are "orthodox," each according to the shibboleths of his hearers, and possess that vulpine "discretion of dulness," whose miraculous might Dean Swift sets forth in his "Essay on the Fates of Clergymen." Such men do exist, and prosper; and as long as they are allowed to do so, Alton Lockes will meet them, and be scandalized by them.—ED.]
At all events, from that day I was emancipated from modern Puritanism. The ministers both avoided all serious conversation with me; and my mother did the same; while, with a strength of mind, rare among women, she never alluded to the scene of that Sunday evening. It was a rule with her never to recur to what was once done and settled. What was to be, might be prayed over. But it was to be endured in silence; yet wider and wider ever from that time opened the gulf between us.
I went trembling the next afternoon to Mackaye and told my story. He first scolded me severely for disobeying my mother. "He that begins o' that gate, laddie, ends by disobeying God and his ain conscience. Gin ye're to be a scholar, God will make you one—and if not, ye'll no mak' yoursel' ane in spite o' Him and His commandments." And then he filled his pipe and chuckled away in silence; at last he exploded in a horse-laugh.
"So ye gied the ministers a bit o' yer mind? 'The deil's amang the tailors' in gude earnest, as the sang says. There's Johnnie Crossthwaite kicked the Papist priest out o' his house yestreen. Puir ministers, it's ill times wi' them! They gang about keckling and screighing after the working men, like a hen that's hatched ducklings, when she sees them tak' the water. Little Dunkeld's coming to London sune, I'm thinking.
"Hech! sic a parish, a parish, a parish; Hech! sic a parish as little Dunkeld! They hae stickit the minister, hanged the precentor, Dung down the steeple, and drucken the bell."
"But may I keep the books a little while, Mr. Mackaye?"
"Keep them till ye die, gin ye will. What is the worth o' them to me? What is the worth o' anything to me, puir auld deevil, that ha' no half a dizen years to live at the furthest. God bless ye, my bairn; gang hame, and mind your mither, or it's little gude books'll do ye."
TAILORS AND SOLDIERS.
I was now thrown again utterly on my own resources. I read and re-read Milton's "Poems" and Virgil's "AEneid" for six more months at every spare moment; thus spending over them, I suppose, all in all, far more time than most gentlemen have done. I found, too, in the last volume of Milton, a few of his select prose works: the "Areopagitica," the "Defence of the English People," and one or two more, in which I gradually began to take an interest; and, little of them as I could comprehend, I was awed by their tremendous depth and power, as well as excited by the utterly new trains of thought into which they led me. Terrible was the amount of bodily fatigue which I had to undergo in reading at every spare moment, while walking to and fro from my work, while sitting up, often from midnight till dawn, stitching away to pay for the tallow-candle which I burnt, till I had to resort to all sorts of uncomfortable contrivances for keeping myself awake, even at the expense of bodily pain—Heaven forbid that I should weary my readers by describing them! Young men of the upper classes, to whom study—pursue it as intensely as you will—is but the business of the day, and every spare moment relaxation; little you guess the frightful drudgery undergone by a man of the people who has vowed to educate himself,—to live at once two lives, each as severe as the whole of yours,—to bring to the self-imposed toil of intellectual improvement, a body and brain already worn out by a day of toilsome manual labour. I did it. God forbid, though, that I should take credit to myself for it. Hundreds more have done it, with still fewer advantages than mine. Hundreds more, an ever-increasing army of martyrs, are doing it at this moment: of some of them, too, perhaps you may hear hereafter.
I had read through Milton, as I said, again and again; I had got out of him all that my youth and my unregulated mind enabled me to get. I had devoured, too, not without profit, a large old edition of "Fox's Martyrs," which the venerable minister lent me, and now I was hungering again for fresh food, and again at a loss where to find it.
I was hungering, too, for more than information—for a friend. Since my intercourse with Sandy Mackaye had been stopped, six months had passed without my once opening my lips to any human being upon the subjects with which my mind was haunted day and night. I wanted to know more about poetry, history, politics, philosophy—all things in heaven and earth. But, above all, I wanted a faithful and sympathizing ear into which to pour all my doubts, discontents, and aspirations. My sister Susan, who was one year younger than myself, was growing into a slender, pretty, hectic girl of sixteen. But she was altogether a devout Puritan. She had just gone through the process of conviction of sin and conversion; and being looked upon at the chapel as an especially gracious professor, was either unable or unwilling to think or speak on any subject, except on those to which I felt a growing distaste. She had shrunk from me, too, very much, since my ferocious attack that Sunday evening on the dark minister, who was her special favourite. I remarked it, and it was a fresh cause of unhappiness and perplexity.
At last I made up my mind, come what would, to force myself upon Crossthwaite. He was the only man whom I knew who seemed able to help me; and his very reserve had invested him with a mystery, which served to heighten my imagination of his powers. I waylaid him one day coming out of the workroom to go home, and plunged at once desperately into the matter.
"Mr. Crossthwaite, I want to speak to you. I want to ask you to advise me."
"I have known that a long time."
"Then why did you never say a kind word to me?"
"Because I was waiting to see whether you were worth saying a kind word to. It was but the other day, remember, you were a bit of a boy. Now, I think, I may trust you with a thing or two. Besides, I wanted to see whether you trusted me enough to ask me. Now you've broke the ice at last, in with you, head and ears, and see what you can fish out."
"I am very unhappy—"
"That's no new disorder that I know of."
"No; but I think the reason I am unhappy is a strange one; at least, I never read of but one person else in the same way. I want to educate myself, and I can't."
"You must have read precious little then, if you think yourself in a strange way. Bless the boy's heart! And what the dickens do you want to be educating yourself for, pray?"
This was said in a tone of good-humoured banter, which gave me courage. He offered to walk homewards with me; and, as I shambled along by his side, I told him all my story and all my griefs.
I never shall forget that walk. Every house, tree, turning, which we passed that day on our way, is indissolubly connected in my mind with some strange new thought which arose in me just at each spot; and recurs, so are the mind and the senses connected, as surely as I repass it.
I had been telling him about Sandy Mackaye. He confessed to an acquaintance with him; but in a reserved and mysterious way, which only heightened my curiosity.
We were going through the Horse Guards, and I could not help lingering to look with wistful admiration on the huge mustachoed war-machines who sauntered about the court-yard.
A tall and handsome officer, blazing in scarlet and gold, cantered in on a superb horse, and, dismounting, threw the reins to a dragoon as grand and gaudy as himself. Did I envy him? Well—I was but seventeen. And there is something noble to the mind, as well as to the eye, in the great strong man, who can fight—a completeness, a self-restraint, a terrible sleeping power in him. As Mr. Carlyle says, "A soldier, after all, is—one of the few remaining realities of the age. All other professions almost promise one thing, and perform—alas! what? But this man promises to fight, and does it; and, if he be told, will veritably take out a long sword and kill me."
So thought my companion, though the mood in which he viewed the fact was somewhat different from my own.
"Come on," he said, peevishly clutching me by the arm; "what do you want dawdling? Are you a nursery-maid, that you must stare at those red-coated butchers?" And a deep curse followed.
"What harm have they done you?"
"I should think I owed them turn enough."
"They cut my father down at Sheffield,—perhaps with the very swords he helped to make,—because he would not sit still and starve, and see us starving around him, while those who fattened on the sweat of his brow, and on those lungs of his, which the sword-grinding dust was eating out day by day, were wantoning on venison and champagne. That's the harm they've done me, my chap!"
"Poor fellows!—they only did as they were ordered, I suppose."
"And what business have they to let themselves be ordered? What right, I say—what right has any free, reasonable soul on earth, to sell himself for a shilling a day to murder any man, right or wrong—even his own brother or his own father—just because such a whiskered, profligate jackanapes as that officer, without learning, without any god except his own looking-glass and his opera-dancer—a fellow who, just because he is born a gentleman, is set to command grey-headed men before he can command his own meanest passions. Good heavens! that the lives of free men should be entrusted to such a stuffed cockatoo; and that free men should be such traitors to their country, traitors to their own flesh and blood, as to sell themselves, for a shilling a day and the smirks of the nursery-maids, to do that fellow's bidding!"
"What are you a-grumbling here about, my man?—gotten the cholera?" asked one of the dragoons, a huge, stupid-looking lad.
"About you, you young long-legged cut-throat," answered Crossthwaite, "and all your crew of traitors."
"Help, help, coomrades o' mine!" quoth the dragoon, bursting with laughter; "I'm gaun be moorthered wi' a little booy that's gane mad, and toorned Chartist."
I dragged Crossthwaite off; for what was jest to the soldiers, I saw, by his face, was fierce enough earnest to him. We walked on a little, in silence.
"Now," I said, "that was a good-natured fellow enough, though he was a soldier. You and he might have cracked many a joke together, if you did but understand each other;—and he was a countryman of yours, too."
"I may crack something else besides jokes with him some day," answered he, moodily.
"'Pon my word, you must take care how you do it. He is as big as four of us."
"That vile aristocrat, the old Italian poet—what's his name?—Ariosto—ay!—he knew which quarter the wind was making for, when he said that fire-arms would be the end of all your old knights and gentlemen in armour, that hewed down unarmed innocents as if they had been sheep. Gunpowder is your true leveller—dash physical strength! A boy's a man with a musket in his hand, my chap!"
"God forbid," I said, "that I should ever be made a man of in that way, or you either. I do not think we are quite big enough to make fighters; and if we were, what have we got to fight about?"
"Big enough to make fighters?" said he, half to himself; "or strong enough, perhaps?—or clever enough?—and yet Alexander was a little man, and the Petit Caporal, and Nelson, and Caesar, too; and so was Saul of Tarsus, and weakly he was into the bargain. AEsop was a dwarf, and so was Attila; Shakspeare was lame; Alfred, a rickety weakling; Byron, clubfooted;—so much for body versus spirit—brute force versus genius—genius."
I looked at him; his eyes glared like two balls of fire. Suddenly he turned to me.
"Locke, my boy, I've made an ass of myself, and got into a rage, and broken a good old resolution of mine, and a promise that I made to my dear little woman—bless her! and said things to you that you ought to know nothing of for this long time; but those red-coats always put me beside myself. God forgive me!" And he held out his hand to me cordially.
"I can quite understand your feeling deeply on one point," I said, as I took it, "after the sad story you told me; but why so bitter on all? What is there so very wrong about things, that we must begin fighting about it?"
"Bless your heart, poor innocent! What is wrong?—what is not wrong? Wasn't there enough in that talk with Mackaye, that you told me of just now, to show anybody that, who can tell a hawk from a hand-saw?"
"Was it wrong in him to give himself such trouble about the education of a poor young fellow, who has no tie on him, who can never repay him?"
"No; that's just like him. He feels for the people, for he has been one of us. He worked in a printing-office himself many a year, and he knows the heart of the working man. But he didn't tell you the whole truth about education. He daren't tell you. No one who has money dare speak out his heart; not that he has much certainly; but the cunning old Scot that he is, he lives by the present system of things, and he won't speak ill of the bridge which carries him over—till the time comes."
I could not understand whither all this tended, and walked on silent and somewhat angry, at hearing the least slight cast on Mackaye.
"Don't you see, stupid?" he broke out at last. "What did he say to you about gentlemen being crammed by tutors and professors? Have not you as good a right to them as any gentleman?"
"But he told me they were no use—that every man must educate himself."
"Oh! all very fine to tell you the grapes are sour, when you can't reach them. Bah, lad! Can't you see what comes of education?—that any dolt, provided he be a gentleman, can be doctored up at school and college, enough to make him play his part decently—his mighty part of ruling us, and riding over our heads, and picking our pockets, as parson, doctor, lawyer, member of parliament—while we—you now, for instance—cleverer than ninety-nine gentlemen out of a hundred, if you had one-tenth the trouble taken with you that is taken with every pig-headed son of an aristocrat—"
"Am I clever?" asked I, in honest surprise.
"What! haven't you found that out yet? Don't try to put that on me. Don't a girl know when she's pretty, without asking her neighbours?"
"Really, I never thought about it."
"More simpleton you. Old Mackaye has, at all events; though, canny Scotchman that he is, he'll never say a word to you about it, yet he makes no secret of it to other people. I heard him the other day telling some of our friends that you were a thorough young genius."
I blushed scarlet, between pleasure and a new feeling; was it ambition?
"Why, hav'n't you a right to aspire to a college education as any do-nothing canon there at the abbey, lad?"
"I don't know that I have a right to anything."
"What, not become what Nature intended you to become? What has she given you brains for, but to be educated and used? Oh! I heard a fine lecture upon that at our club the other night. There was a man there—a gentleman, too, but a thorough-going people's man, I can tell you, Mr. O'Flynn. What an orator that man is to be sure! The Irish AEschines, I hear they call him in Conciliation Hall. Isn't he the man to pitch into the Mammonites? 'Gentlemen and ladies,' says he, 'how long will a diabolic society'—no, an effete society it was—'how long will an effete, emasculate, and effeminate society, in the diabolic selfishness of its eclecticism, refuse to acknowledge what my immortal countryman, Burke, calls the "Dei voluntatem in rebus revelatam"—the revelation of Nature's will in the phenomena of matter? The cerebration of each is the prophetic sacrament of the yet undeveloped possibilities of his mentation. The form of the brain alone, and not the possession of the vile gauds of wealth and rank, constitute man's only right to education—to the glories of art and science. Those beaming eyes and roseate lips beneath me proclaim a bevy of undeveloped Aspasias, of embryo Cleopatras, destined by Nature, and only restrained by man's injustice, from ruling the world by their beauty's eloquence. Those massive and beetling brows, gleaming with the lambent flames of patriotic ardour—what is needed to unfold them into a race of Shakspeares and of Gracchi, ready to proclaim with sword and lyre the divine harmonies of liberty, equality, and fraternity, before a quailing universe?'"
"It sounds very grand," replied I, meekly; "and I should like very much certainly to have a good education. But I can't see whose injustice keeps me out of one if I can't afford to pay for it."
"Whose? Why, the parson's to be sure. They've got the monopoly of education in England, and they get their bread by it at their public schools and universities; and of course it's their interest to keep up the price of their commodity, and let no man have a taste of it who can't pay down handsomely. And so those aristocrats of college dons go on rolling in riches, and fellowships, and scholarships, that were bequeathed by the people's friends in old times, just to educate poor scholars like you and me, and give us our rights as free men."
"But I thought the clergy were doing so much to educate the poor. At least, I hear all the dissenting ministers grumbling at their continual interference."
"Ay, educating them to make them slaves and bigots. They don't teach them what they teach their own sons. Look at the miserable smattering of general information—just enough to serve as sauce for their great first and last lesson of 'Obey the powers that be'—whatever they be; leave us alone in our comforts, and starve patiently; do, like good boys, for it's God's will. And then, if a boy does show talent in school, do they help him up in life? Not they; when he has just learnt enough to whet his appetite for more, they turn him adrift again, to sink and drudge—to do his duty, as they call it, in that state of life to which society and the devil have called him."
"But there are innumerable stories of great Englishmen who have risen from the lowest ranks."
"Ay; but where are the stories of those who have not risen—of all the noble geniuses who have ended in desperation, drunkenness, starvation, suicide, because no one would take the trouble of lifting them up, and enabling them to walk in the path which Nature had marked out for them? Dead men tell no tales; and this old whited sepulchre, society, ain't going to turn informer against itself."
"I trust and hope," I said, sadly, "that if God intends me to rise, He will open the way for me; perhaps the very struggles and sorrows of a poor genius may teach him more than ever wealth and prosperity could."
"True, Alton, my boy! and that's my only comfort. It does make men of us, this bitter battle of life. We working men, when we do come out of the furnace, come out, not tinsel and papier mache, like those fops of red-tape statesmen, but steel and granite, Alton, my boy—that has been seven times tried in the fire: and woe to the papier mache gentleman that runs against us! But," he went on, sadly, "for one who comes safe through the furnace, there are a hundred who crack in the burning. You are a young bear, my lad, with all your sorrows before you; and you'll find that a working man's training is like the Red Indian children's. The few who are strong enough to stand it grow up warriors; but all those who are not fire-and-water-proof by nature—just die, Alton, my lad, and the tribe thinks itself well rid of them."
So that conversation ended. But it had implanted in my bosom a new seed of mingled good and evil, which was destined to bear fruit, precious perhaps as well as bitter. God knows, it has hung on the tree long enough. Sour and harsh from the first, it has been many a year in ripening. But the sweetness of the apple, the potency of the grape, as the chemists tell us, are born out of acidity—a developed sourness. Will it be so with my thoughts? Dare I assert, as I sit writing here, with the wild waters slipping past the cabin windows, backwards and backwards ever, every plunge of the vessel one forward leap from the old world—worn-out world I had almost called it, of sham civilization and real penury—dare I hope ever to return and triumph? Shall I, after all, lay my bones among my own people, and hear the voices of freemen whisper in my dying ears?
Silence, dreaming heart! Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof—and the good thereof also. Would that I had known that before! Above all, that I had known it on that night, when first the burning thought arose in my heart, that I was unjustly used; that society had not given me my rights. It came to me as a revelation, celestial-infernal, full of glorious hopes of the possible future in store for me through the perfect development of all my faculties; and full, too, of fierce present rage, wounded vanity, bitter grudgings against those more favoured than myself, which grew in time almost to cursing against the God who had made me a poor untutored working man, and seemed to have given me genius only to keep me in a Tantalus' hell of unsatisfied thirst.
Ay, respectable gentlemen and ladies, I will confess all to you—you shall have, if you enjoy it, a fresh opportunity for indulging that supreme pleasure which the press daily affords you of insulting the classes whose powers most of you know as little as you do their sufferings. Yes; the Chartist poet is vain, conceited, ambitious, uneducated, shallow, inexperienced, envious, ferocious, scurrilous, seditious, traitorous.—Is your charitable vocabulary exhausted? Then ask yourselves, how often have you yourself honestly resisted and conquered the temptation to any one of these sins, when it has come across you just once in a way, and not as they came to me, as they come to thousands of the working men, daily and hourly, "till their torments do, by length of time, become their elements"? What, are we covetous too? Yes! And if those who have, like you, still covet more, what wonder if those who have nothing covet something? Profligate too? Well, though that imputation as a generality is utterly calumnious, though your amount of respectable animal enjoyment per annum is a hundred times as great as that of the most self-indulgent artizan, yet, if you had ever felt what it is to want, not only every luxury of the senses, but even bread to eat, you would think more mercifully of the man who makes up by rare excesses, and those only of the limited kinds possible to him, for long intervals of dull privation, and says in his madness, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die!" We have our sins, and you have yours. Ours may be the more gross and barbaric, but yours are none the less damnable; perhaps all the more so, for being the sleek, subtle, respectable, religious sins they are. You are frantic enough, if our part of the press calls you hard names, but you cannot see that your part of the press repays it back to us with interest. We see those insults, and feel them bitterly enough; and do not forget them, alas! soon enough, while they pass unheeded by your delicate eyes as trivial truisms. Horrible, unprincipled, villanous, seditious, frantic, blasphemous, are epithets, of course, when applied to—to how large a portion of the English people, you will some day discover to your astonishment. When will that come, and how? In thunder, and storm, and garments rolled in blood? Or like the dew on the mown grass, and the clear shining of the sunlight after April rain?
Yes, it was true. Society had not given me my rights. And woe unto the man on whom that idea, true or false, rises lurid, filling all his thoughts with stifling glare, as of the pit itself. Be it true, be it false, it is equally a woe to believe it; to have to live on a negation; to have to worship for our only idea, as hundreds of thousands of us have this day, the hatred, of the things which are. Ay, though, one of us here and there may die in faith, in sight of the promised land, yet is it not hard, when looking from the top of Pisgah into "the good time coming," to watch the years slipping away one by one, and death crawling nearer and nearer, and the people wearying themselves in the fire for very vanity, and Jordan not yet passed, the promised land not yet entered? While our little children die around us, like lambs beneath the knife, of cholera and typhus and consumption, and all the diseases which the good time can and will prevent; which, as science has proved, and you the rich confess, might be prevented at once, if you dared to bring in one bold and comprehensive measure, and not sacrifice yearly the lives of thousands to the idol of vested interests, and a majority in the House. Is it not hard to men who smart beneath such things to help crying aloud—"Thou cursed Moloch-Mammon, take my life if thou wilt; let me die in the wilderness, for I have deserved it; but these little ones in mines and factories, in typhus-cellars, and Tooting pandemoniums, what have they done? If not in their fathers' cause, yet still in theirs, were it so great a sin to die upon a barricade?"
Or after all, my working brothers, is it true of our promised land, even as of that Jewish one of old, that the priests' feet must first cross the mystic stream into the good land and large which God has prepared for us?
Is it so indeed? Then in the name of the Lord of Hosts, ye priests of His, why will ye not awake, and arise, and go over Jordan, that the people of the Lord may follow you?
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. Aquae pumpis purae quantum suff. Applicatur extero pro re nata. 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 to-morrow 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.
THE DULWICH GALLERY.
Sandy Mackaye received me in a characteristic way—growled at me for half an hour for quarrelling with my mother, and when I was at my wit's end, suddenly offered me a bed in his house and the use of his little sitting-room—and, bliss too great to hope! of his books also; and when I talked of payment, told me to hold my tongue and mind my own business. So I settled myself at once; and that very evening he installed himself as my private tutor, took down a Latin book, and set me to work on it.
"An' mind ye, laddie," said he, half in jest and half in earnest, "gin I find ye playing truant, and reading a' sorts o' nonsense instead of minding the scholastic methods and proprieties, I'll just bring ye in a bill at the year's end o' twa guineas a week for lodgings and tuition, and tak' the law o' ye; so mind and read what I tell ye. Do you comprehend noo?"
I did comprehend, and obeyed him, determining to repay him some day—and somehow—how I did not very clearly see. Thus I put myself more or less into the old man's power; foolishly enough the wise world will say. But I had no suspicion in my character; and I could not look at those keen grey eyes, when, after staring into vacancy during some long preachment, they suddenly flashed round at me, and through me, full of fun and quaint thought, and kindly earnestness, and fancy that man less honest than his face seemed to proclaim him.
By-the-by, I have as yet given no description of the old eccentric's abode—an unpardonable omission, I suppose, in these days of Dutch painting and Boz. But the omission was correct, both historically and artistically, for I had as yet only gone to him for books, books, nothing but books; and I had been blind to everything in his shop but that fairy-land of shelves, filled, in my simple fancy, with inexhaustible treasures, wonder-working, omnipotent, as the magic seal of Solomon.
It was not till I had been settled and at work for several nights in his sanctum, behind the shop, that I began to become conscious what a strange den that sanctum was.
It was so dark, that without a gaslight no one but he could see to read there, except on very sunny days. Not only were the shelves which covered every inch of wall crammed with books and pamphlets, but the little window was blocked up with them, the floor was piled with bundles of them, in some places three feet deep, apparently in the wildest confusion—though there was some mysterious order in them which he understood, and symbolized, I suppose, by the various strange and ludicrous nicknames on their tickets—for he never was at fault a moment if a customer asked for a book, though it were buried deep in the chaotic stratum. Out of this book alluvium a hole seemed to have been dug near the fireplace, just big enough to hold his arm-chair and a table, book-strewn like everything else, and garnished with odds and ends of MSS., and a snuffer-tray containing scraps of half-smoked tobacco, "pipe-dottles," as he called them, which were carefully resmoked over and over again, till nothing but ash was left. His whole culinary utensils—for he cooked as well as eat in this strange hole—were an old rusty kettle, which stood on one hob, and a blue plate which, when washed, stood on the other. A barrel of true Aberdeen meal peered out of a corner, half buried in books, and a "keg o' whusky, the gift o' freens," peeped in like case out of another.
This was his only food. "It was a' poison," he used to say, "in London. Bread full o' alum and bones, and sic filth—meat over-driven till it was a' braxy—water sopped wi' dead men's juice. Naething was safe but gude Scots parrich and Athol brose." He carried his water-horror so far as to walk some quarter of a mile every morning to fill his kettle at a favourite pump. "Was he a cannibal, to drink out o' that pump hard-by, right under the kirkyard?" But it was little he either ate or drank—he seemed to live upon tobacco. From four in the morning till twelve at night, the pipe never left his lips, except when he went into the outer shop. "It promoted meditation, and drove awa' the lusts o' the flesh. Ech! it was worthy o' that auld tyrant, Jamie, to write his counter-blast to the poor man's freen! The hypocrite! to gang preaching the virtues o' evil-savoured smoke 'ad daemones abigendos,—and then rail again tobacco, as if it was no as gude for the purpose as auld rags and horn shavings!"
Sandy Mackaye had a great fancy for political caricatures, rows of which, there being no room for them on the walls, hung on strings from the ceiling—like clothes hung out to dry—and among them dangled various books to which he had taken an antipathy, principally High Tory and Benthamite, crucified, impaled through their covers, and suspended in all sorts of torturing attitudes. Among them, right over the table, figured a copy of Icon Basilike dressed up in a paper shirt, all drawn over with figures of flames and devils, and surmounted by a peaked paper cap, like a victim at an auto-da-fe. And in the midst of all this chaos grinned from the chimney-piece, among pipes and pens, pinches of salt and scraps of butter, a tall cast of Michael Angelo's well-known skinless model—his pristine white defaced by a cap of soot upon the top of his scalpless skull, and every muscle and tendon thrown into horrible relief by the dirt which had lodged among the cracks. There it stood, pointing with its ghastly arm towards the door, and holding on its wrist a label with the following inscription:—
Here stand I, the working man, Get more off me if you can.
I questioned Mackaye one evening about those hanged and crucified books, and asked him if he ever sold any of them.
"Ou, ay," he said; "if folks are fools enough to ask for them, I'll just answer a fool according to his folly."
"But," I said, "Mr. Mackaye, do you think it right to sell books of the very opinions of which you disapprove so much?"
"Hoot, laddie, it's just a spoiling o' the Egyptians; so mind yer book, and dinna tak in hand cases o' conscience for ither folk. Yell ha' wark eneugh wi' yer ain before ye're dune."
And he folded round his knees his Joseph's coat, as he called it, an old dressing-gown with one plaid sleeve, and one blue one, red shawl-skirts, and a black broadcloth back, not to mention, innumerable patches of every imaginable stuff and colour, filled his pipe, and buried his nose in "Harrington's Oceana." He read at least twelve hours every day of his life, and that exclusively old history and politics, though his favourite books were Thomas Carlyle's works. Two or three evenings in the week, when he had seen me safe settled at my studies, he used to disappear mysteriously for several hours, and it was some time before I found out, by a chance expression, that he was attending some meeting or committee of working-men. I begged him to take me there with him. But I was stopped by a laconic answer—
"When ye're ready."
"And when shall I be ready, Mr. Mackaye?"
"Read yer book till I tell ye."
And he twisted himself into his best coat, which had once been black, squeezed on his little Scotch cap, and went out.
* * * * *
I now found myself, as the reader may suppose, in an element far more congenial to my literary tastes, and which compelled far less privation of sleep and food in order to find time and means for reading; and my health began to mend from the very first day. But the thought of my mother haunted me; and Mackaye seemed in no hurry to let me escape from it, for he insisted on my writing to her in a penitent strain, informing her of my whereabouts, and offering to return home if she should wish it. With feelings strangely mingled between the desire of seeing her again and the dread of returning to the old drudgery of surveillance, I sent the letter, and waited the whole week without any answer. At last, one evening, when I returned from work, Sandy seemed in a state of unusual exhilaration. He looked at me again and again, winking and chuckling to himself in a way which showed me that his good spirits had something to do with my concerns: but he did not open on the subject till I had settled to my evening's reading. Then, having brewed himself an unusually strong mug of whisky-toddy, and brought out with great ceremony a clean pipe, he commenced.
"Alton, laddie, I've been fiechting Philistines for ye the day."
"Ah! have you heard from my mother?"
"I wadna say that exactly; but there's been a gran bailie body wi' me that calls himsel' your uncle, and a braw young callant, a bairn o' his, I'm thinking."
"Ah! that's my cousin—George; and tell me—do tell me, what you said to them."
"Ou—that'll be mair concern o' mine than o' yourn. But ye're no going back to your mither."
My heart leapt up with—joy; there is no denying it—and then I burst into tears.
"And she won't see me? Has she really cast me off?"
"Why, that'll be verra much as ye prosper, I'm thinking. Ye're an unaccreedited hero, the noo, as Thomas Carlyle has it. 'But gin ye do weel by yoursel', saith the Psalmist, 'ye'll find a' men speak well o' ye'—if ye gang their gate. But ye're to gang to see your uncle at his shop o' Monday next, at one o'clock. Now stint your greeting, and read awa'."
On the next Monday I took a holiday, the first in which I had ever indulged myself; and having spent a good hour in scrubbing away at my best shoes and Sunday suit, started, in fear and trembling, for my uncle's "establishment."
I was agreeably surprised, on being shown into the little back office at the back of the shop, to meet with a tolerably gracious reception from the good-natured Mammonite. He did not shake hands with me, it is true;—was I not a poor relation? But he told me to sit down, commended me for the excellent character which he had of me both from my master and Mackaye, and then entered on the subject of my literary tastes. He heard I was a precious clever fellow. No wonder, I came of a clever stock; his poor dear brother had plenty of brains for everything but business. "And you see, my boy" (with a glance at the big ledgers and busy shop without), "I knew a thing or two in my time, or I should not have been here. But without capital, I think brains a curse. Still we must make the best of a bad matter; and if you are inclined to help to raise the family name—not that I think much of book writers myself—poor starving devils, half of them—but still people do talk about them—and a man might get a snug thing as newspaper editor, with interest; or clerk to something or other—always some new company in the wind now—and I should have no objection, if you seemed likely to do us credit, to speak a word for you. I've none of your mother's confounded puritanical notions, I can tell you; and, what's more, I have, thank Heaven, as fine a city connexion as any man. But you must mind and make yourself a good accountant—learn double entry on the Italian method—that's a good practical study; and if that old Sawney is soft enough to teach you other things gratis, he may as well teach you that too. I'll bet he knows something about it—the old Scotch fox. There now—that'll do—there's five shillings for you—mind you don't lose them—and if I hear a good account of you, why, perhaps—but there's no use making promises."
At this moment a tall handsome young man, whom I did not at first recognize as my cousin George, swung into the office, and shook me cordially by the hand.
"Hullo, Alton, how are you? Why, I hear you're coming out as a regular genius—breaking out in a new place, upon my honour! Have you done with him, governor?"
"Well, I think I have. I wish you'd have a talk with him, my boy. I'm sorry I can't see more of him, but I have to meet a party on business at the West-end at two, and Alderman Tumbril and family dine with us this evening, don't they? I think our small table will be full."
"Of course it will. Come along with me, and we'll have a chat in some quiet out-of-the-way place. This city is really so noisy that you can't hear your own ears, as our dean says in lecture."
So he carried me off, down back streets and alleys, a little puzzled at the extreme cordiality of his manner. Perhaps it sprung, as I learned afterward to suspect, from his consistent and perpetual habit of ingratiating himself with every one whom he approached. He never cut a chimney-sweep if he knew him. And he found it pay. The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
Perhaps it sprung also, as I began to suspect in the first hundred yards of our walk, from the desire of showing off before me the university clothes, manners, and gossip, which he had just brought back with him from Cambridge.
I had not seen him more than three or four times in my life before, and then he appeared to me merely a tall, handsome, conceited, slangy boy. But I now found him much improved—in all externals at least. He had made it his business, I knew, to perfect himself in all athletic pursuits which were open to a Londoner. As he told me that day—he found it pay, when one got among gentlemen. Thus he had gone up to Cambridge a capital skater, rower, pugilist—and billiard player. Whether or not that last accomplishment ought to be classed in the list of athletic sports, he contrived, by his own account, to keep it in that of paying ones. In both these branches he seemed to have had plenty of opportunities of distinguishing himself at college; and his tall, powerful figure showed the fruit of these exercises in a stately and confident, almost martial, carriage. Something jaunty, perhaps swaggering, remained still in his air and dress, which yet sat not ungracefully on him; but I could see that he had been mixing in society more polished and artificial than that to which we had either of us been accustomed, and in his smart Rochester, well-cut trousers, and delicate French boots, he excited, I will not deny it, my boyish admiration and envy.
"Well," he said, as soon as we were out of the shop, "which way? Got a holiday? And how did you intend to spend it?"
"I wanted very much," I said, meekly, "to see the pictures at the National Gallery."
"Oh! ah! pictures don't pay; but, if you like—much better ones at Dulwich—that's the place to go to—you can see the others any day—and at Dulwich, you know, they've got—why let me see—" And he ran over half-a-dozen outlandish names of painters, which, as I have never again met with them, I am inclined on the whole to consider as somewhat extemporaneous creations. However, I agreed to go.
"Ah! capital—very nice quiet walk, and convenient for me—very little out of my way home. I'll walk there with you."
"One word for your neighbour and two for yourself," thought I; but on we walked. To see good pictures had been a long cherished hope of mine. Everything beautiful in form or colour was beginning of late to have an intense fascination for me. I had, now that I was emancipated, gradually dared to feed my greedy eyes by passing stares into the print-shop windows, and had learnt from them a thousand new notions, new emotions, new longings after beauties of Nature, which seemed destined never to be satisfied. But pictures, above all, foreign ones, had been in my mother's eyes, Anathema Maranatha, as vile Popish and Pagan vanities, the rags of the scarlet woman no less than the surplice itself—and now, when it came to the point, I hesitated at an act of such awful disobedience, even though unknown to her. My cousin, however, laughed down my scruples, told me I was out of leading-strings now, and, which was true enough, that it was "a * * * * deal better to amuse oneself in picture galleries without leave, than live a life of sneaking and lying under petticoat government, as all home-birds were sure to do in the long-run." And so I went on, while my cousin kept up a running fire of chat the whole way, intermixing shrewd, bold observations upon every woman who passed, with sneers at the fellows of the college to which we were going—their idleness and luxury—the large grammar-school which they were bound by their charter to keep up, and did not—and hints about private interest in high quarters, through which their wealthy uselessness had been politely overlooked, when all similar institutions in the kingdom were subject to the searching examination of a government commission. Then there were stories of boat-races and gay noblemen, breakfast parties, and lectures on Greek plays flavoured with a spice of Cambridge slang, all equally new to me—glimpses into a world of wonders, which made me feel, as I shambled along at his side, trying to keep step with his strides, more weakly and awkward and ignorant than ever.
We entered the gallery. I was in a fever of expectation.
The rich sombre light of the rooms, the rich heavy warmth of the stove-heated air, the brilliant and varied colouring and gilded frames which embroidered the walls, the hushed earnestness of a few artists, who were copying, and the few visitors who were lounging from picture to picture, struck me at once with mysterious awe. But my attention was in a moment concentrated on one figure opposite to me at the furthest end. I hurried straight towards it. When I had got half-way up the gallery I looked round for my cousin. He had turned aside to some picture of a Venus which caught my eye also, but which, I remember now, only raised in me then a shudder and a blush, and a fancy that the clergymen must be really as bad as my mother had taught me to believe, if they could allow in their galleries pictures of undressed women. I have learnt to view such things differently now, thank God. I have learnt that to the pure all things are pure. I have learnt the meaning of that great saying—the foundation of all art, as well as all modesty, all love, which tells us how "the man and his wife were both naked, and not ashamed." But this book is the history of my mental growth; and my mistakes as well as my discoveries are steps in that development, and may bear a lesson in them.
How I have rambled! But as that day was the turning-point of my whole short life, I may be excused for lingering upon every feature of it.
Timidly, but eagerly, I went up to the picture, and stood entranced before it. It was Guido's St. Sebastian. All the world knows the picture, and all the world knows, too, the defects of the master, though in this instance he seems to have risen above himself, by a sudden inspiration, into that true naturalness, which is the highest expression of the Spiritual. But the very defects of the picture, its exaggeration, its theatricality, were especially calculated to catch the eye of a boy awaking out of the narrow dulness of Puritanism. The breadth and vastness of light and shade upon those manly limbs, so grand and yet so delicate, standing out against the background of lurid night, the helplessness of the bound arms, the arrow quivering in the shrinking side, the upturned brow, the eyes in whose dark depths enthusiastic faith seemed conquering agony and shame, the parted lips, which seemed to ask, like those martyrs in the Revelations, reproachful, half-resigned, "O Lord, how long?"—Gazing at that picture since, I have understood how the idolatry of painted saints could arise in the minds even of the most educated, who were not disciplined by that stern regard for fact which is—or ought to be—the strength of Englishmen. I have understood the heart of that Italian girl, whom some such picture of St. Sebastian, perhaps this very one, excited, as the Venus of Praxiteles the Grecian boy, to hopeless love, madness, and death. Then I had never heard of St. Sebastian. I did not dream of any connexion between that, or indeed any picture, and Christianity; and yet, as I stood before it, I seemed to be face to face with the ghosts of my old Puritan forefathers, to see the spirit which supported them on pillories and scaffolds—the spirit of that true St. Margaret, the Scottish maiden whom Claverhouse and his soldiers chained to a post on the sea-sands to die by inches in the rising tide, till the sound of her hymns was slowly drowned in the dash of the hungry leaping waves. My heart swelled within me, my eyes seemed bursting from my head with the intensity of my gaze, and great tears, I knew not why, rolled slowly down my face.