Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 32

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"And if it is refused?"

"Fight! that's the word, and no other. There's no other hope. No Charter,—No social reforms! We must give them ourselves, for no one else will. Look there, and judge for yourself!"

He pulled a letter out from among his papers, and threw it across to me.

"What's this?"

"That came while you were in gaol. There don't want many words about it. We sent up a memorial to government about the army and police clothing. We told 'em how it was the lowest, most tyrannous, most ill-paid of all the branches of slop-making; how men took to it only when they were starved out of everything else. We entreated them to have mercy on us—entreated them to interfere between the merciless contractors and the poor wretches on whose flesh and blood contractors, sweaters, and colonels, were all fattening: and there's the answer we got. Look at it; read it! Again and again I've been minded to placard it on the walls, that all the world might see the might and the mercies of the government. Read it! 'Sorry to say that it is utterly out of the power of her Majesty's * * * *s to interfere—as the question of wages rests entirely between the contractor and the workmen.'"

"He lies!" I said. "If it did, the workmen might put a pistol to the contractor's head, and say—'You shall not tempt the poor, needy, greedy, starving workers to their own destruction, and the destruction of their class; you shall not offer these murderous, poisonous prices. If we saw you offering our neighbour a glass of laudanum, we would stop you at all risks—and we will stop you now.' No! no! John, the question don't lie between workman and contractor, but between workman and contractor-plus-grape-and-bayonets!"

"Look again. There's worse comes after that. 'If government did interfere, it would not benefit the workman, as his rate of wages depends entirely on the amount of competition between the workmen themselves.' Yes, my dear children, you must eat each other; we are far too fond parents to interfere with so delightful an amusement! Curse them—sleek, hard-hearted, impotent do-nothings! They confess themselves powerless against competition—powerless against the very devil that is destroying us, faster and faster every year! They can't help us on a single point. They can't check population; and if they could, they can't get rid of the population which exists. They daren't give us a comprehensive emigration scheme. They daren't lift a finger to prevent gluts in the labour market. They daren't interfere between slave and slave, between slave and tyrant. They are cowards, and like cowards they shall fall!"

"Ay—like cowards they shall fall!" I answered; and from that moment I was a rebel and a conspirator.

"And will the country join us?"

"The cities will; never mind the country. They are too weak to resist their own tyrants—and they are too weak to resist us. The country's always drivelling in the background. A country-party's sure to be a party of imbecile bigots. Nobody minds them."

I laughed. "It always was so, John. When Christianity first spread, it was in the cities—till a pagan, a villager, got to mean a heathen for ever and ever."

"And so it was in the French revolution; when Popery had died out of all the rest of France, the priests and the aristocrats still found their dupes in the remote provinces."

"The sign of a dying system that, to be sure. Woe to Toryism and the Church of England, and everything else, when it gets to boasting that its stronghold is still the hearts of the agricultural poor. It is the cities, John, the cities, where the light dawns first—where man meets man, and spirit quickens spirit, and intercourse breeds knowledge, and knowledge sympathy, and sympathy enthusiasm, combination, power irresistible; while the agriculturists remain ignorant, selfish, weak, because they are isolated from each other. Let the country go. The towns shall win the Charter for England! And then for social reform, sanitary reform, ædile reform, cheap food, interchange of free labour, liberty, equality, and brotherhood for ever!"

Such was our Babel-tower, whose top should reach to heaven. To understand the allurement of that dream, you must have lain, like us, for years in darkness and the pit. You must have struggled for bread, for lodging, for cleanliness, for water, for education—all that makes life worth living for—and found them becoming, year by year, more hopelessly impossible, if not to yourself, yet still to the millions less gifted than yourself; you must have sat in darkness and the shadow of death, till you are ready to welcome any ray of light, even though it should be the glare of a volcano.