Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 7

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Chapter VII: First Love

Truly I said, I did not know what had happened to me. I did not attempt to analyse the intense, overpowering instinct which from that moment made the lovely vision I had seen the lodestar of all my thoughts. Even now, I can see nothing in those feelings of mine but simple admiration—idolatry, if you will—of physical beauty. Doubtless there was more—doubtless—I had seen pretty faces before, and knew that they were pretty, but they had passed from my retina, like the prints of beauties which I saw in the shop windows, without exciting a thought—even a conscious emotion of complacency. But this face did not pass away. Day and night I saw it, just as I had seen it in the gallery. The same playful smile—the same glance alternately turned to me, and the glowing picture above her head—and that was all I saw or felt. No child ever nestled upon its mother's shoulder with feelings more celestially pure, than those with which I counted over day and night each separate lineament of that exceeding loveliness. Romantic? extravagant? Yes; if the world be right in calling a passion romantic just in proportion as it is not merely hopeless, but pure and unselfish, drawing its delicious power from no hope or faintest desire of enjoyment, but merely from simple delight in its object—then my passion was most romantic. I never thought of disparity in rank. Why should I? That could not blind the eyes of my imagination. She was beautiful, and that was all, and all in all to me; and had our stations been exchanged, and more than exchanged; had I been King Cophetua, or she the beggar-maid, I should have gloried in her just as much.

Beloved sleepless hours, which I spent in picturing that scene to myself, with all the brilliance of fresh recollection! Beloved hours! how soon you pass away! Soon—soon my imagination began to fade; the traces of her features on my mind's eye became confused and dim; and then came over me the fierce desire to see her again, that I might renew the freshness of that charming image. Thereon grew up an agony of longing—an agony of weeks, and months, and years. Where could I find that face again? was my ruling thought from morning till eve. I knew that it was hopeless to look for her at the gallery where I had first seen her. My only hope was, that at some place of public resort at the West End I might catch, if but for a moment, an inspiring glance of that radiant countenance. I lingered round the Burton Arch and Hyde Park Gate—but in vain. I peered into every carriage, every bonnet that passed me in the thoroughfares—in vain. I stood patiently at the doors of exhibitions and concerts, and playhouses, to be shoved back by policemen, and insulted by footmen—but in vain. Then I tried the fashionable churches, one by one; and sat in the free seats, to listen to prayers and sermons, not a word of which, alas! I cared to understand, with my eyes searching carefully every pew and gallery, face by face; always fancying, in self-torturing waywardness, that she might be just in the part of the gallery which I could not see. Oh! miserable days of hope deferred, making the heart sick! Miserable gnawing of disappointment with which I returned at nightfall, to force myself down to my books! Equally miserable rack of hope on which my nerves were stretched every morning when I rose, counting the hours till my day's work should be over, and my mad search begin again! At last "my torment did by length of time become my element." I returned steadily as ever to the studies which I had at first neglected, much to Mackaye's wonder and disgust; and a vain hunt after that face became a part of my daily task, to be got through with the same dull, sullen effort, with which all I did was now transacted.

Mackaye, I suppose, at first, attributed my absences and idleness to my having got into bad company. But it was some weeks before he gently enough told me his suspicions, and they were answered by a burst of tears, and a passionate denial, which set them at rest forever. But I had not courage to tell him what was the matter with me. A sacred modesty, as well as a sense of the impossibility of explaining my emotions, held me back. I had a half-dread, too, to confess the whole truth, of his ridiculing a fancy, to say the least, so utterly impracticable; and my only confidant was a picture in the National Gallery, in one of the faces of which I had discovered some likeness to my Venus; and there I used to go and stand at spare half hours, and feel the happier for staring and staring, and whispering to the dead canvas the extravagances of my idolatry.

But soon the bitter draught of disappointment began to breed harsher thoughts in me. Those fine gentlemen who rode past me in the park, who rolled by in carriages, sitting face to face with ladies, as richly dressed, if not as beautiful, as she was—they could see her when they liked—why not I? What right had their eyes to a feast denied to mine? They, too, who did not appreciate, adore that beauty as I did—for who could worship her like me? At least they had not suffered for her as I had done; they had not stood in rain and frost, fatigue, and blank despair—watching—watching—month after month; and I was making coats for them! The very garment I was stitching at, might, in a day's time, be in her presence—touching her dress; and its wearer bowing, and smiling, and whispering—he had not bought that bliss by watching in the ram. It made me mad to think of it.