Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 6

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Chapter VI: 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 dæmones abigendos,—and then rail again tobacco, as if it was no as gude for the purpose as auld rags and horn shavings!"