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The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 1. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
page: 213


WHEN I had fully recovered, it seemed to me impossible to go on living at home. I had lost all that made life sweet on the outside, and the monotony of existence within was intolerable. If I had had the hope of a settled future and the occupation of preparing for it, things might have been better; but even such lame endeavours after self-education as I had made now failed me, and I seemed to have lost the key to all the holy places of the past, and to have let the fire on the sacred altar burn out.

I was listless, inert, uninterested. All page: 214 hope, all joy, all secret ambition of future success, all passionate thrill of living, all delight in books, all intellectual vitality, had gone from me. I wanted but to be left alone, not spoken to and not noticed. Even the companionship of Edwin was distasteful to me; and their cheerfulness under what I felt to be our irreparable loss made my sisters seem the very incarnations of ingratitude.

Everything had gone from me. I could have shrieked for the torture given me by music. I dared not read a poem which was associated with Mrs. Dalrymple—and all were associated with her—and the zeal with which I had dug down into the arid wells of the ‘Encyclopædia Londinensis’ for that fantastic learning with which I had crammed my brain, had gone with the rest.

What a wretched time this was to me! I had recovered my life and lost that which had made it beautiful. It was the husk page: 215 without the kernel, the shell without the pearl; and I was like the Garden when the Lady who had been its Soul had died. I have gone through the fire more than once since then, but I have never had a more painful period than this of that drear dead winter, down among the mountains, after Adeline Dalrymple had left.

The Grahames did what they could to help me. I think they saw what was amiss and were sorry for me. But I had lost all interest in those subjects which had been common to us, and cared nothing for the theological difficulties which, a year ago, had so much disturbed me. Things might be, or might not. What mattered it to me? I went back to that languid acquiescence in doctrines as they are taught, which is neither faith nor voluntary acceptance. It is simply letting things slip and taking no trouble. I had lost, too, my political ardour; and from passion and enthusiasm page: 216 and turbulence all round had passed into the silence of indifference, the quietude of death.

Thus I droned through the days, dreaming rather than doing; sheltering myself behind the false plea of study, because I wanted to be left alone, but, destitute of either purpose or vigour, in reality doing nothing. My books lay open before me, but I, with my face in my hands, was thinking of all that Adeline Dalrymple had ever said to me—recalling all that she had ever done—remembering her eyes, her voice, her hair, her hands—till I broke down into such tempests of despair as frightened even myself. The consciousness of her was my universe, my inseparable second self—like another soul possessing me. I carried her always with me; and my heart was like a perfumed vase filled with the ashes of the dead.

She was the spirit that animated Nature page: 217 —Nature, who had always been my Divine Mother, my Eternal Friend. I saw her in the stars and found her in the skies; I heard her in the voice of the waters and traced her outline in the misty foldings of the silent hills. She was as beautiful as the snow-crystals on the window-pane, as pure as the frost that fringed the dead leaves of the trees. She was everywhere—everywhere; the one unchangeable circumstance traceable behind all different forms. In the night and in the morning and through out the day, she was my ever-present thought—sometimes strong and vivid as a solid fact, sometimes pale and vaporous as a distant cloud, but always there—always!—always! She held me and possessed me—as she had said she ever would. She stole between me and heaven, and when I prayed to God I thought of her. She was fire in my veins and ice in my heart; but I should have been poorer through life had I not page: 218 known her. I can see now the good of the pain she brought me.

‘When winter went and spring came back’—how I love that beautiful copy of Shelley which she gave me! I have it yet, and can still repeat almost all the minor poems I learnt as a lad, blistering the pages where I learnt!—my blood once more began to stir in my veins and my natural energy to re-assert itself. I gradually got back my old feeling of power and invulnerability—my old sense of certainty in the future and my ability to conquer circumstances and compel happiness, no matter what the obstacles to be overcome. Heart-broken though I might be, I was still master of fate; and I had always the fee-simple of the future.

Yet, as this sense of power returned, so grew ever more masterful that which was its reflex—repugnance to my home-life, and desire to go out into the world on my own page: 219 account, to work for myself and be independent.

But how? What could I do? I had learnt nothing thoroughly and nothing useful. Even my languages, which were my battle-horses, were merely so much literary furniture, and were useless for the more practical purposes of either writing or speaking. I had amassed cart-loads of useless knowledge—including heraldry and prescientific mythology—but I knew nothing that represented money-power—nothing which touched the fringe of any professional robe, or included the price of a plate of meat at a chop-house.

It had been intended that I, like my brothers, should go to Cambridge when I should come of age. My father would have given me a reading-tutor for the year previous to matriculation; and after that he would have held me responsible for my future, and himself acquitted of all obliga- obligation page: 220 tion. But I was too impatient to wait even the short two years that stood between me and my majority. I was now past nineteen; and those two years seemed to me an eternity of ennui. Besides, what could I do after I had taken my degree? I could not take Orders; and the Bar was beyond my means. Where was the good, then, of widening foundations over which I could never build? and why delay the more restricted building which should be begun now at once?

Then it was that I returned to my old love, Literature—that waste-pipe of unspecialized powers, which no one thinks demands an apprenticeship, and wherein all believe that fame and success are to be caught like wild goats, at a bound! Besides—it would be my means of communication with Mrs. Dalrymple. If I could but write things which she would repeat, as she repeated that poem of Shelley's, that sweet page: 221 music of Heine's—if I could make those beautiful eyes moist and stir that lofty soul with generous emotion, she remembering the boy who through her had become great!—if I could! Yes: I would be a literary man, pure and simple; and I would leave home.

Of late I had blossomed into poetry. It is the natural expression of love and sorrow, and minds, like all other things, obey fixed laws and exhibit the same phenomena under the same conditions. And being only a Philistine, without real insight into the true meaning of the gift of Song, I thought that, because I had been able to set down a few passionate couplets with tolerable flow of rhythm and harmony of rhyme, my path was clear before me, my tools were sharpened to my hand, and my chaplet of bays was already sprouting on the tree. I wrote a short poem, which I resolved should determine my future. If page: 222 accepted, I would at once take up my parable and begin my career; if rejected, I would accept the verdict as final, and go to the colonies as a sheep-farmer, or I would go to sea as a sailor before the mast, or enlist as a private in the army—trusting to myself to be recognised as a gentleman, raised from the ranks in less than a year, and made an admiral or a general while still young. I was such a mere child in some things, even yet!—and in nothing more than in my ignorance of the ways of the world, and the impotence of the individual when brought into contact with systems. Meanwhile, I would try my fate with literature; poetry and literature being to me, in those days of darkness, interchangeable terms meaning the same thing.

At that time the two magazines in greatest favour among us youngsters at the vicarage were ‘Ainsworth's Miscellany’ and ‘Douglas Jerrold's Shilling Magazine.’ My father page: 223 patronized Blackwood, of which some articles were delightful to me and others made me rageful. With the superstition of youthful hope and fear, I determined to do a little bit of private vaticination for my better guidance; and to make the best of a certain number of catches on the point of cup-and-ball determine the magazine to which I should send my poem. I caught forty-nine out of the fifty for Ainsworth, and only forty-seven for Jerrold. To the former then I posted my rhymes, with a boyish letter of entreaty which must have amused him by its fervour.

To my joy he accepted my poem, and sent me an honorarium of two guineas; together with a kind and encouraging letter, assuring me of success if I would persevere, and promising to accept all such work as would suit the ‘Miscellany.’ So now things were plainly ordered, and my future was fair before me.

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Literature, as a profession, was a thing which went dead against our family traditions—our inherited ideas of respectability and what was due to our gentle birth. To write in the quiet dignity of home a learned book like Burton's ‘Anatomy of Melancholy,’ or a profound one like Locke ‘On the Understanding,’ was one thing; to depend for bread on one's pen was another. The one shed increased lustre on the noblest name; the other was no better than fiddling in an orchestra, acting in a barn, or selling yards of silk across the counter, all of which were allied disreputabilities. It was a low-class métier, let who would follow it; but for a gentleman and the grandson of a Bishop, it was degradation.

So at least my father said when I opened fire on him one day, and propounded to him my notable scheme for leaving home, going to London, and supporting myself by literature. He was opposed to the scheme from page: 225 first to last, and tried to deter me from it by sarcasm.

‘I thought, with your fine ideas, you had more ambition than to make yourself a mere newspaper hack, a mere Grub Street poet,’ he said, throwing into his words that galling emphasis which impetuous youth finds so hard to bear. ‘Do you think you can do nothing better for yourself than write poems for Warren's blacking, or scratch up Bow Street details for a dinner?’

‘I do not intend to write poems for Warren's blacking, nor to scratch up Bow Street details for a dinner,’ I answered—I honestly confess it—insolently; for my father had the fatal power, as some others have also had, of rousing the worst passions in my nature. ‘And if to be a literary hack now is the way to literary fame hereafter,’ I continued, ‘I will serve my apprenticeship as others have done. Sir Walter Scott was not a literary hack!’

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‘There is no good in talking to such an obstinate young puppy as you,’ said my father angrily. ‘I am sick to death of your whims and affectations! The best thing for you would be a good thrashing to knock some of the conceit and wilfulness out of you. If you go to London, as you propose, you go without my consent—do you hear?—and the curse of God rests on disobedient children to the end of their lives. Now leave the room, Christopher, and never let me hear of this ridiculous rubbish again.’

Here then I was at the junction of those two roads of which either determines the whole after-life. Opposition of my father's unreasoning kind was naturally, to a boy of my violent temper, so much oil on flame and so much strengthening of resolve. All the same, obedience to parents is a duty; so also is the perfecting of one's own powers and leading the life for which one is best fitted—for we all have duties to ourselves as page: 227 well as to others. At this moment the two clashed and made my choice very difficult. For underneath the fierce temper which I could not deny, was always conscience and the desire to know the right;—and to do it when known.

Finally, my personal ambition conquered. I reasoned the thing out in my own way, and came to the conclusion that, although self-sacrifice for the good of others is absolute and imperative, the sacrifice of a real vocation for no one's good and simply because of the arbitrary opposition of a parent, is not; and that in my case self-assertion was not selfishness. The permission then, which my father would not give me, I prepared myself to take; and I was on the point of running away from home, as my grandfather, uncle, and brother had done—keeping quiet for the moment only because Edwin was not well—when, fortunately for us, Mr. King, our family solicitor, came down page: 228 from London to pay us a visit, and proved the ‘deux ex machinâ’ by whom all difficulties were arranged.

Mr. King took a fancy to me. A sharp practitioner in his office, outside his profession he was a kind-hearted man enough, fond of young people, and always ready to assist undeveloped talent and help on the schemes of honourable ambition. He thought that I was fit for something better than a parson's petticoat, he said with his cynical contempt for all forms of faith; and, as it was not possible to send me to the Bar, the next best thing was to give me the run of the British Museum, and leave to prove of what stuff I was made. He would help me with his advice; and he promised my father that he would look after my health and morals.

But, first of all, he said to me: ‘Could he see what I had already done, beside that prancing poem in “Ainsworth's Miscel- Miscellany page: 229 lany,” which was—well—which was pretty fair, but vastly young?’

Full of the pride of ignorance and the confidence of youth, I gave him some of the things I thought my best; and never doubted of his verdict. Poor Mr. King! Such a turgid, upheaped, colossally clumsy style as mine was in those early days!—‘like a wood where you could not see the trees for the leaves’—like a confused mass of ornamentation, where not a figure was detached nor a volute truly drawn. But to me they were all monumental—chaos, encumbrances, bad drawing and all.

Mr. King told me quite candidly what he thought of my productions. In consequence, he went near to drive me mad by what I took to be his prosaic aridity and deadness of touch. He cut out all my finest passages; ridiculed all my best descriptions; gravely demanded what I meant by my sublimest ideas; put my most high-flown phrases into page: 230 flat prose, and then asked me if that was not much better?—certainly it was more intellegible!—and reduced the whole thing to pulp.

But it was protoplastic pulp, after all his hacking and pounding—pulp with the germ of life and the potentiality of development in it—pulp out of which, with care, might be evolved some kind of vertebrate organism—for, though he edited me severely, he ended by saying he thought I had ‘stuff’ in me; at all events, enough to justify me in my choice of literature as a profession and him in his advocacy with my father. And after he had thus waded through my literary Niagaras, he addressed himself again to my father and discussed the matter with him philosophically.

It was evident I was doing no good at home, he said. I was too big for the house; too vigorous for such a life as we led down here. It was power wasted—vitality run- running page: 231 ning to seed—and it would be far better to send me up to London, as I wished. Let me have a year's grace to see what I could do. The question of permanent settlement might come after. When I should come of age my small fortune would simplify matters—until then, could I not have an allowance?

Mr. King was one of the few people who had a decided influence over my father. His sharp, brisk energy; the trenchant audacity of his theories; his worldly knowledge and business capacity; his respect for society, appearances, success; his absolute self-confidence—all naturally impressed a man whose indolence was his bane, and who had to be stirred up if he were to be made to move. And as Mr. King swore by all his gods that his sisters—he was not married—should look after me and keep me out of the destruction into which my father made sure I should run, the thing was at last page: 232 arranged. My father gave his formal consent to my going up to London for a year for the purpose of studying at the British Museum, and writing the book on which I had set my heart. And he agreed to furnish me with the funds necessary for that year's experience.

‘After that,’ he said kindly, and yet severely; ‘you sink or swim on your own account. If you fail, as I fear you will, you have your home to come back to. It will never be shut against you, unless you disgrace yourself so that you are unfit to enter it. If you succeed—my blessing be with you! It will be a pleasant surprise if you do—but all things are possible to God; and to His care I commend you.’

My leaving home in this sudden and erratic manner created a tremendous stir among us. Poor dear Edwin cried like a girl, and said that he did not know what he should do without me, and that it was page: 233 hard, after I had accustomed him to lean on me all his life, for me now to leave him alone.

And when he said this, for a brief instant I felt the joints of my resolve give way, and I thought I would throw it all up and be content with him and home. But, like another Pharaoh, I hardened myself afresh, and, instead of yielding to him, did what I could to comfort him—especially promising to return before long, and to write to him every day, faithfully.

As for my sisters, they were half-relieved and half-sorry, as now the prospect of greater peace by the withdrawal of my turbulent personality, and now the loss of a useful kind of servant, was uppermost. As pretty Ellen drawled out in that quiet naïve way of hers, by which she was able to say the most wounding things with the greatest serenity, and not get into a quarrel as the price to be paid for her frankness:

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‘We shall have no one now to do things for us; and I think, Chris, you are very selfish indeed to go away. Who is to go down for the letters on the wet days? and how dull it will be for Julia and me to walk out by ourselves when Edwin has a cough and cannot come! How can we go up the mountains alone? Who is to drive away the bulls? and how can we sail without you to manage the boat? And what is Edwin to do without you?—you, who have always pretended to be so fond of him too! I must say I think you are very wicked and selfish for leaving us all like this, just to go and amuse yourself in London. But you always were a selfish and ungrateful boy; and it is not to be wondered at.’

‘Am I really selfish, Nell?’ I asked.

‘Of course you are,' she answered, lifting her soft eyes to mine with her candid look. ‘You were never anything else.’

Well, perhaps. Still, I thought that to page: 235 give up such a chance as I had now, that I might go to the post on the wet days, take care of my sisters in their mountain walks and amuse my brother when he was not well, would be a disproportionate expenditure of my own life in view of the gain to theirs.

And more. With the return of the old strength and hope had come back the old theological troubles: and my ‘unsoundness’ had by now become so patent as to make things less than ever harmonious between my father and myself. His method of reconversion was not of a kind to bring us into closer union. Leland's ‘Short Method with the Deists,’ which he insisted on my reading, only made me angry; and his unstinted abuse of all Unitarianism, Deism, and even Dissent, made me angrier still.

When the ‘Vestiges of Creation’ came out, our fight was serious. Giving, as it did page: 236 the first idea of cosmic continuity, and the consequent destruction of the bit by bit creation of Genesis, it was a priceless treasure to me, to him a deadly and diabolical sin. And in the controversy between Whewell and Sir David Brewster, we of course took opposite sides—and mine was not that which adduced as the convincing proof of the centralization of intelligent life on the earth alone, the astounding argument that Christ had died for man only, and that no other world could, therefore, be peopled with creatures of intelligence, soul, or spirit like ours.

For all these reasons then, I felt that it was best to go. I had outgrown the dimen- sions of the old home; and fission is the law of families as well as of animalculæ. I was the one inharmonious circumstance within the vicarage walls, and all would be better without me. The die was cast. My choice was made. Selfish, or only self-respecting, I took my place with Mr. King page: 237 in the coach which was to carry us to the railway station; and thus and for ever broke down my dependence on the old home and set my face towards the Promised Land—the land where I was to find work, fame, liberty and happiness.