Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 27

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

I stood, still and white with rage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"About ten miles from D * * * *."

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

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

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