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The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 1. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
page: 238


MY first year in London was one of strange alternation of feeling. Sometimes I longed for the old place—the lake, the mountains, the rivers, the woods, the faces I knew when passing up the street, and my own people—with that sickness of desire which grows into a real malady, culminating in death if continued long enough. And then again I was in a world of enchantment as my mind opened to new impressions and my heart warmed to new affections.

This total change of scene, and the influx of fresh interests included, did for me what page: 239 nothing else would have done. My certainty of endless heart-break for the loss of my first love began to be as a grave-mound which gently covers itself with moss and flowers as it sinks down almost on a level with the plain, while sweet birds come to sing, above the dead.

I read daily at the British Museum, gathering material for my magnum opus, and making raids into all manner of strange regions—according to my old habit of amassing unusable cartloads of perfectly worthless learning. Among other things, I remember how nearly I made shipwreck of myself in the fascinating whirlpool of Analogy. I improved my knowledge of classical times and circumstances, and blessed Becker and Winckelmann; and I lost myself in the mazes of comparative mythology and Higgins's ‘Anacalypsis.’ Turned loose in this rich pasturage, with only the limitation of subject which came from the page: 240 main lines of my book, I ran great risk of losing my time by the very fact of over-filling it.

The consciousness of living in the midst of such boundless stores, and of being the potential possessor of all this wealth, acted on my brain as a stimulant—sometimes as an intoxicant. I was never weary of that badly-lighted, ill-ventilated and queerly tenanted old room, with its legendary flea and uncleansed corners. The first to come, the last to leave, and always surrounded by a pile of books, of which the number brought down on my young head many a good-natured sarcasm from the attendants, I soon became known to the officials and habitués, whom my youth interested and my enthusiasm amused. All were kind to me; but one attendant was especially my friend. The habitual readers of the Museum from some forty to a few years ago will recognise my man.

With his heart in the country, and his page: 241 hope of leaving his hated service in the reading-room to once more establish himself as a gentleman-farmer in Norfolk ever flitting, like a Will-o'-the-wisp, before him, he had to live on those narrow lines for the remainder of his life. The post which had been accepted as a temporary stop-gap when he was ruined by that unlucky speculation of his had to be his permanent office; and the discomfort of a few months crystallized into the discontent of a life. Honest as the day, true as steel, tender-hearted as a woman, he was gruff in manner and of superficial surliness of temper to men; to women he was always both courteous and considerate, so that he grew to be the recognised ladies' attendant of the room. His delicate little wife, for whom he had the most chivalrous devotion, knew his real worth; and I too learnt the intrinsic value of his nature. He and his wife were my good friends, and I used often to go and see them on the Sun- Sunday page: 242 day afternoons, when they lived out by Stoke Newington.

From the first—partly owing to the habit of mixing with all classes, proper to a clergyman's family, and to the familiarity natural in a small country place towards the children whom the elders had seen grow up in their midst; partly to my own nature—I have been as democratic in my ways as in my principles. I have ever chosen my friends for their worth and not for their station; and, taking society vertically as I have done, I have counted friends in all the strata, from those born in the purple down to fishermen and servants. And I began as I have gone on—starting off with this real friendship made with the family of a simple attendant in a public library.

In those days Mr. Panizzi—not yet Sir Antonio—was our Deus Maximus; and on more than one occasion he showed how far ahead Italian astuteness looks, and how page: 243 wise it is to have your traps in order when you suspect that vermin may be about. He caught and caged one of these vermin in the most masterly way in the world. The thing was done as neatly as a conjuror's trick, and has left on me the impression of a nightmare. It was my first introduction to the Italian character, whereof I have had wide experience since.

Mr. Panizzi took great notice of me. He had a watchful eye over his small world both of readers and officials, and not so much as a mouse squeaked behind the skirting-board but he heard it and tracked the run from end to end. Who did his work of espionage no one ever knew; but some one must have been his ‘mouse-trap’—for this accurate knowledge of all things within the domain of the Printed Book Department could not have been had by direct personal observation, even granting those ‘eye-holes’ of which there was a page: 244 dark tradition and unpleasant consciousness.

One day he gave me a little wise advice about my friendliness with this good attendant, of whom I have spoken. He had seen me shake hands with him on coming into the reading-room, and he knew that I visited him and his wife at their own home. And as he knew from Mr. King something of my inherited social position, and saw for himself how young and unformed and impulsive I was, he thought himself justified in warning and reproving me. As a reader, I was so far under his jurisdiction; and his position gave him seigneurial rights.

‘You are a gentleman,’ he said; ‘he is only a servant. Make him keep his place, and do you maintain your position. These familiarities with low people always end badly.’ Then he bent his head and levelled his eyes at me from under his broad bushy brows. ‘You are very young,’ he said with page: 245 a peculiar smile; ‘and you think that you can revolutionize society. You will find that you cannot; and that if you knock your head against stone walls, you will only make it ache and alter nothing.’

But he talked to the winds. What can heady youth do, when temperament and principles combine to push it in one direction, but stick to its own sense of right and earn its own experience?—with bitter weeping, if need be, but always earned through constancy and conscientiousness. The young fellow whose course of action or mode of thought can be changed or modified by the first dissident he comes across will never be a man, morally, but will remain a bit of jelly to the end. For weakness of will and plasticity of conviction, however pleasant they may be to live with, make but a poor job of life on the whole; and while one is young, moral steadiness is more honourable than intellectual amiability. Wherefore, page: 246 acting more or less consciously on these ideas, I gave no heed to Mr. Panizzi's counsel, and continued my friendship with these good people as I maintained it to the end.

My chief friends however, at this time, were naturally Mr. King and his family, and their house was like my home. I have often wondered since, how they could have been bothered with me as they were; but they were wonderfully kind to me—at least, some among them. There were two sisters who did not like me; so we will let them pass. It is not in human nature to speak very enthusiastically of those who dislike one and make no secret of their feelings; and I wish to remember only things pleasant and of good repute in connection with my old friends and quasi-guardians.

They were a strangely united family; not so much in personal affection as by the feeling of family solidarity. When I first knew them page: 247 they were five in all; and all were unmarried. The eldest brother was the master; the eldest sister was the mistress. The youngest two sisters were respectively the beauty and the invalid; and the younger brother was the family pet and subordinate. He was one of the best fellows that ever lived—kind, unselfish, devoted, faithful; but he hated his profession, and he was emphatically a round man in a square hole. He was a great athlete and fond of all country exercises. He had wanted to go to sea, but had been prevented for reasons of family ambition never fulfilled; so he had to sit at his desk instead of climbing up shrouds and handling stays; and his brother found, when too late, that to coerce a life out of its natural direction does not always ensure a successful settling in another form.

This brother, George, and I were great friends; and for years we spent every Sunday together. We used to take long walks page: 248 into the country, about London, and through the parks and public gardens; and, utterly unlike in every thought, feeling and instinct, we were nevertheless chums as close as if we had been brothers together.

The eldest sister was the great feature of the family. She was a tall, large, strikingly handsome woman, almost stone deaf, and of a singular mixture of qualities. With certain virile characteristics—witness her personal courage and her constancy; her strong sense of family duty, which led her to self-sacrifice for the sake of her own; her self-respect, which ran into queenliness of pride and dignity; her power to command and her ability to obey—she had the most ultra-feminine notions of propriety, and for certain transgressions felt a loathing amounting to horror. She, as well as my special chum, were curiously conservative; and it was impossible to make them believe that anything which had not page: 249 been in their forming-time of youth was valuable or respectable. I was devotedly attached to this noble creature—‘Queen Betty’ we used to call her; and she made a kind of pet of me, and protected me against the animosity of her sisters.

For Mr. King himself I have only kindly tender recollections; and I will not dwell on the clouds which came over the future.

In these days I lived at a small private boarding-house kept by a dear, good woman with a magnificent contralto voice, formidable eyebrows, a decided beard and moustache, and hands as large and strong as a man's. In spite of these masculine accompaniments, Miss Smith had a heart as soft as swansdown and as large as an elephant's. She was totally unfit for any undertaking in which she had to resist encroachments and defend her own rights. Anyone could talk her over. She was influenced by her affections more than by her page: 250 interests; and where she took a liking she would sacrifice her gains to please the favoured him or her by extra liberalities. She had generous instincts, refined tastes, indolent habits; and she kept a loose hand on the domestic reins. Hence she made the most comfortable home possible for those who lived under her hospitable roof. But our comfort was her loss; and, when Christmas brought its bills, the two ends gaped ever wider and wider and were less and less able to be strained together.

I knew all this only afterwards. At the time everything seemed to stand on velvet.

This house was a queer experience to me. The tremendous love-affairs which budded and blossomed, but never set into the permanent fruit of matrimony; the friendships which began, continued, and then suddenly one day went pouf! in the smoke of a blazing quarrel; the fights of the old page: 251 ladies for the footstools, the favourite easy-chair, the best place by the fire, and the stratagems and wiles put in force for victory and prior possession—how odd it all was! And what extraordinary people came and went like shadows, or stayed as if they were coeval with the foundations of the house, and as little to be moved as these!

There was the bull-necked, bullet-headed bon vivant who kept the bill-of-fare up to the mark, was inexorable on the subject of breakfast-bacon and soft-roed herrings, and allowed of no stint in quantity nor scamping of quality.

There was the dissipated young clerk who did nothing but count returned notes at the Bank of England, and had no intellect for higher work had he been put to it. He had a private income in excess of his salary; was given over to music-halls and late hours; spent his money as if it were water running through his fingers; dressed page: 252 gorgeously and wore a small counter-full of jewellery; and, among other things, bought a fine carved mahogany bookcase, which he stocked with novels, all in showy bindings, uncut and never read.

There was the well-conducted young solicitor, silent, reserved, methodical—the best of them all; and the loose-lipped young fellow, who spluttered when he spoke, and asked counsel of unmarried girls whether he should put on his thick trousers or his thinner.

There was the uxorious couple who made embarrassing love in public, and the quarrelsome couple who were just as embarrassing in their fierce disputes; the maiden lady of good family, whose feature was eyebrows, and who would have sniffed at Venus herself as plebeian, had she not had the exact arch held by her as a sign of birth and breeding; and there was the mincing prude who objected to Cromwell ‘because page: 253 he was not a gentleman,’ kept a sharp look-out on the young men and was a very Cerberus to the girls.

There were the girls themselves—the pretty, touzled, mop-headed ones, who turned the heads of all the men, and had their own loves out of doors; the earnest ones who had something in them, and the frivolous ones who had nothing in them; and one—that girl who was my special friend and studied with me at the British Museum. She was one of the vanguard of the independent women; but she did her life's work without blare or bluster, or help from the outside; and without that weakness of her sex which makes them cry out when they are hustled in the crowd they have voluntarily joined—which makes them think themselves aggrieved because they are not aided by the men to whom they have placed themselves in opposition and rivalry.

Then there were the women of sixty and page: 254 upwards, who chirped like birds and dressed like brides; the mother and daughter, who came no one knew whence, did no one knew what, were pleasant companions and charming entertainers—but kept at a distance; the buxom widows of forty, smiling, debonnaire and ready for their second bridal; and the sad-eyed ones of the same age, whose weepers were as big as sails, and their crape of phenomenal depth and blackness. There were the half-crazed members of well-known families planted out to insure that peace at home which their odd ways disturbed; and sometimes there were people whose antecedents would not bear scrutiny, and whose dismissal had to be summarily given. Like the shadows of a magic lantern these memories pass before me, and I ask myself: Was it really I, the man I am now, who lived there as one of this strange menagerie—myself, perhaps one of the strangest of them all?

page: 255

Impulsive, shy, eager, enthusiastic, sensitive at all points, revelling in my sense of liberty but scarcely knowing how to use it, I was like some big bird as yet unfledged—some huge puppy as yet untrained. My kind landlady, however, liked me, and did her best to warn and direct me as to my conduct in the house and the intimacies to be formed or avoided among her people.

‘It is a pity you should be spoilt too soon,’ she said to me one day with a sigh. ‘Boys are so nice, and men are such wretches! I wish you could be a boy for ever, then you might be worth something.’

‘I shall be worth more when I am a man,’ I laughed. ‘You shall be proud of me then, Smithy. Wait till my book is published, and then you will see.’

‘I would rather keep you as you are,’ she answered. ‘When you are a man I page: 256 shall have lost you. Now you are like my own boy.’

‘You shall never lose me, Smithy,’ I said. ‘I am not of the kind to change.’

Dear, good, generous Miss Smith! She was only a boarding-house keeper; but she was the most of a mother to me of any woman I have known—save poor Nurse Mary. I got to like her and confide in her so intimately that it seemed strange I had not known her all my life; and to the end we remained the perfectly good friends we were now, when she ‘mothered’ me and looked after me, and kept me, so far as she could, from making mistakes and falling into mischief. If I have seemed to give too much weight to this comparatively unimportant tract in my life's journey, it is because it was my first field of personal freedom; and like all first things it has left an indelible impression on my mind.