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

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Chapter XXVII: The Plush Breeches Tragedy

My triumph had received a cruel check enough when just at its height, and more were appointed to follow. Behold! some two days after, another—all the more bitter, because my conscience whispered that it was not altogether undeserved. The people's press had been hitherto praising and petting me lovingly enough. I had been classed (and heaven knows that the comparison was dearer to me than all the applause of the wealthy) with the Corn-Law Rhymer, and the author of the "Purgatory of Suicides." My class had claimed my talents as their own—another "voice fresh from the heart of nature," another "untutored songster of the wilderness," another "prophet arisen among the suffering millions,"—when, one day, behold in Mr. O'Flynn's paper a long and fierce attack on me, my poems, my early history! How he could have got at some of the facts there mentioned, how he could have dared to inform his readers that I had broken my mother's heart by my misconduct, I cannot conceive; unless my worthy brother-in-law, the Baptist preacher, had been kind enough to furnish him with the materials. But however that may be, he showed me no mercy. I was suddenly discovered to be a time-server, a spy, a concealed aristocrat. Such paltry talent as I had, I had prostituted for the sake of fame. I had deserted The People's Cause for filthy lucre—an allurement which Mr. O'Flynn had always treated with withering scorn—in print. Nay, more, I would write, and notoriously did write, in any paper, Whig, Tory, or Radical, where I could earn a shilling by an enormous gooseberry, or a scrap of private slander. And the working men were solemnly warned to beware of me and my writings, till the editor had further investigated certain ugly facts in my history, which he would in due time report to his patriotic and enlightened readers.

All this stung me in the most sensitive nerve of my whole heart, for I knew that I could not altogether exculpate myself; and to that miserable certainty was added the dread of some fresh exposure. Had he actually heard of the omissions in my poems?—and if he once touched on that subject, what could I answer? Oh! how bitterly now I felt the force of the critic's careless lash! The awful responsibility of those written words, which we bandy about so thoughtlessly! How I recollected now, with shame and remorse, all the hasty and cruel utterances to which I, too, had given vent against those who had dared to differ from me; the harsh, one-sided judgments, the reckless imputations of motive, the bitter sneers, "rejoicing in evil rather than in the truth." How I, too, had longed to prove my victims in the wrong, and turned away, not only lazily, but angrily, from many an exculpatory fact! And here was my Nemesis come at last. As I had done unto others, so it was done unto me!

It was right that it should be so. However indignant, mad, almost murderous, I felt at the time, I thank God for it now. It is good to be punished in kind. It is good to be made to feel what we have made others feel. It is good—anything is good, however bitter, which shows us that there is such a law as retribution; that we are not the sport of blind chance or a triumphant fiend, but that there is a God who judges the earth—righteous to repay every man according to his works.

But at the moment I had no such ray of comfort—and, full of rage and shame, I dashed the paper down before Mackaye. "How shall I answer him? What shall I say?"

The old man read it all through, with a grim saturnine smile.

"Hoolie, hoolie, speech, is o' silver—silence is o' gold says Thomas Carlyle, anent this an' ither matters. Wha'd be fashed wi' sic blethers? Ye'll just abide patient, and haud still in the Lord, until this tyranny be owerpast. Commit your cause to him, said the auld Psalmist, an' he'll mak your righteousness as clear as the light, an' your just dealing as the noonday."

"But I must explain; I owe it as a duty to myself; I must refute these charges; I must justify myself to our friends."

"Can ye do that same, laddie?" asked he, with one of his quaint, searching looks. Somehow I blushed, and could not altogether meet his eye, while he went on, "—An' gin ye could, whaur would ye do 't? I ken na periodical whar the editor will gie ye a clear stage an' no favour to bang him ower the lugs."