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The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 1. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
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page: 77

CHAPTER IV.

AT seventeen my future profession was undetermined and my real education had never been begun. My father's constitutional indolence had greatly increased of late years, and nothing was so difficult to him as to take a resolution, excepting to act on it when taken. Hence, Edwin and I were still hanging about at home, doing nothing that should in any way equip us for the life in which we had to take our place and pull our pound with the rest.

Though we two were incomparably the worst off for tuition, our elder brothers page: 78 themselves had been but slenderly furnished, all things considered. Therefore they had failed to make for themselves such positions as might have helped us youngsters against the dead weight of my father's inertia. It was as much as they could do to fend for themselves and struggle into comparatively good places. And some of them, in revolt against their difficulties, had flung up the attempt here at home, and had cast their lines in the dark but brisker waters of emigration and exile.

There never was a family with so much power left to run so cruelly to waste for want of timely cultivation as was ours! It is no vanity to say that we were an exceptionally fine set all through, and that, had we been properly trained, each one of us would have made his mark. There was not a dunce among us, nor a physical failure. All my sisters were pretty; all my brothers were well-grown and handsome; and Edwin, page: 79 who was the least robust in person, was the most beautiful in face and the most lovely in character. I have often lamented the waste of good material in our family, and the loss to the world that it has been. When I see the elaborate education given to boys and girls with brain-power of the most ordinary calibre, and note what careful training has made of them, and then remember the large amount of mental and physical vitality among ourselves, and what ordinary care might have made of us, I confess I feel heartsick—foolish as it is to look back, like Lot's wife, over the irrecoverable past. All the same, it was a misfortune; and it has been a real loss.

It might have been so different! My father's office and position made him an influential person in society; my mother's family kept us abreast with the county magnates, at least in theory, if, owing to my father's disinclination to society, scarcely in page: 80 practice; and we had friends who might have helped us if they would. There was, for one, the great Tory member whose historic name was like a battle-cry—he had power enough, if he would have used it for gratitude without being entreated. For my father would have cut off his right hand before he would have asked a favour of living man. When an election was on hand, and every vote was of consequence, Sir James used to come to our house, make much of his dear friend Mr. Kirkland, praise his Latinity and his poetry, admire the girls, kiss the children, and hint at substantial services for the boys. When he was returned he forgot all about his dear friend as cleanly as if he had never existed, and did not lift a finger to serve the sons of his faithful partisan, who were also the grandsons of his old master, the Bishop. His want of gratitude never touched my father's political fidelity; for no man was page: 81 ever less a self-seeker than he. He did his duty at a personal loss quite as stoutly as if it brought him grist and grain; though he suffered from ingratitude, as any man of sensibility would. But he never complained, even in the privacy of home. I have never known anyone more entirely free from all spite and bitterness than he.

By this time I had formed my theory of the universe. What thoughtful boy of seventeen has not? I was firmly convinced that I held the fee-simple of all great truths in my hands, and that no views other than those which seemed to me right were worth consideration. All were the outcome of either ignorance or falsehood—of either blind superstition which could not see the light, or wilful tyranny, conscious of its iniquity but determined to hold on for the oppression of truth. No question could have two sides; no opponent could be an honest man; no ultimate development page: 82 of my own theories could eventuate in evil. Does not every individual, like concrete society, go through this phase of bigotry—tyrannous and unjust by its very intensity of conviction?

I was comically proud of being an Englishman. I had no doubt that we were God's modern chosen—His eldest sons and peculiar favourites; that the English Protestant Church was the very Delos of Truth—the ark of the Christian covenant; that even Christian prayers said in a foreign tongue were not heard with so much pleasure, nor answered with so much precision, as ours—while prayers said to a Being who did not exist—to Allah or Brahma, Vishnu or Buddha, not to speak of the Madonna and the saints—were neither heard nor answered at all; that we were the best gentlemen, the bravest men, the most enlightened and most virtuous people on the face of the earth; and that every departure from our special page: 83 ways of living and thinking was a wandering into the desert with destruction at the far end. That is, I was bounded by my own circumstances, and could not travel beyond my experience.

Also, I was an ardent Republican and a devout Christian. Indeed, I was the one because the other; and, in spite of that injunction to pay tribute to Cæsar, on which my father so much insisted, I could not see a ‘via media.’ Nor could I understand the compromise between faith and practice, consistency and expediency, made by the believing world; nor yet how men, who would have roasted alive an infidel had the law permitted, could deliberately break all the commands given by the Saviour. That fine satirical problem of how to hold together, on the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, an empire founded on the breach of all the Ten Commandments, had not then been formulated. But the spirit of it was page: 84 in my own young head, and the difficulty involved was one that puzzled me as it has many more than myself, and will continue to puzzle others for some time yet to come.

For my own part, full of youthful zeal and the logic of consistency, I determined to live the Christian life so far as it was possible; helped thereto by the influence and example of the strong old heathen times. I, at least, in my own person would be faithful to the Lord and a man among men.

I began by renouncing all the pleasant softnesses and flattering vanities of my youth, and made myself a moral hybrid, half ascetic, half stoic. I accustomed myself to privations and held luxuries as deadly sins. Sensual by nature, I cut myself off from all sweets of which I was inordinately fond; and because I was a heavy sleeper and fond of that warm ener- enervating page: 85 vating morning doze which made me always late for breakfast, for a whole year I lay on the floor and despised bed as an unrighteous effeminacy. Never cowardly to pain, I taught myself to bear mild torture without wincing—as, when I one day dug out a tooth with my knife as a good exercise of fortitude. Because I once saw myself in the glass with a strange and sudden consciousness of the beauty of my youth and personality, I turned that offending bit of blistered quicksilver to the wall, and for six months never saw my face again. During that time I had to undergo many things from my sisters because of the untidiness of my general appearance; for though I had become scrupulously clean by now, as part of the physical enjoyment of life—clean even to my long brown freckled hands, surely the test-piece of a boy!—I was but a sloven in the decorative part, and never knew the right side from the wrong, and scarcely the page: 86 back of things from the front. I gave away all the ‘treasures’ I had accumulated since my childhood, in imitation of the Apostles and according to Christ's injunctions to the rich young man; and no one but myself knew of that little altar which I had built up in the waste-place behind the shrubbery, where I used to carry the first of such fruit as I specially liked, to lay it thereon as my offering to God—to wither in the sun or be devoured by insects and birds. I set myself secret penance for secret sins. I prayed often and fervently, and sometimes seemed to be borne away from the things of time and space and carried into the very presence of God, as it were in a trance—a still living Gerontius. I realized my faith as positively as if it had been a thing I could see and touch. My confirmation was a consecration; and when first I received the communion, I felt as if I had tabernacled the Lord in my own page: 87 body, and that I was henceforth His, so that I could never sin again.

In these days of boyish fervour, had I fallen into the hands of a Roman Catholic I should have become a monk of some severe disciplinary order. My whole inner life was one of intense religious realization. God was far off, the paternal King and inexorable Judge of all, and His ‘unlidded eye’ ever watched me with awful attention. This thought was sometimes so oppressive that I used to shrink and cower under the consciousness of being always looked at; when I would cover my face in my hands and say aloud:

‘Oh! if I could but be sometimes alone—if I could but hide myself and be able to think as I liked and not be watched nor heard!’

And then I felt that I had spoken blasphemy and committed the unpardonable sin.

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My consciousness of Christ was softer. He was my gracious Prince, to obey whom brought the joy of loyal serving. To disobey pained rather than angered Him, and caused Him that ‘crucifixion afresh’ in which I believed as firmly as I believed in Gethsemane and Golgotha. The angels were my invisible companions, of whom I was not afraid; and I felt the grim presence of the devil at my back and in the corners of the room, as one feels the presence of a murderer in the dark. In a word, I lived in the Christian's sanctified egotism—believing that all the forces of heaven and hell were mainly occupied with the salvation or destruction of my one poor miserable little soul; and that the most important thing between earth and sky was, whether a hot-blooded lad with more sincerity than judgment flew into a rage when he should have curbed his temper, or heroically checked his impulses of sensuality in the page: 89 matter of jam-pudding and the fruit garden.

But during all this time of my faithful endeavours after a higher life I was just as intolerable to my family as before, and my passions were still my masters. My anger blazed out in the old fierce way at the smallest provocation; and when the blood mounted to my head, then I was again the helot self-degraded I had always been. Heaven was shut against me, and I was spiritually in the Hell I was predestined to eternally inhabit.

I was vehemently penitent when the fit was over, and resolved in my wild way of repentance to bear with Christian patience the next affront put on my sensitive pride. Alas! nature was too strong for me, and my progress in self-control was like nothing so much as the twirling of a squirrel in his cage. For all my efforts to deliver myself, I was up to my neck in the Slough; and my prayers brought page: 90 me no more spiritual grace, no more godly fruitage, than so much water poured out on sand. The boiling blood I called on God to calm boiled ever as madly as before; and with all my faith in the Divine presence and power, I was conscious that I was not answered.

What agony I went through! What an infinite sense of being fated to sin, foredoomed to perdition, possessed me, as I felt that I was left to fight with my wild beasts unhelped—to struggle to get free, that I might take refuge in God, and to be hopelessly in the clutch of the devil! It was as if some monster held me bodily, while I was striving to deliver myself that I might rush into the outstretched, loving arms of the Saviour opposite. But that Saviour waited for me to go to Him. He did not and would not help me. Only those who have gone through a like period of spiritual endeavour and frustration can realize my page: 91 sufferings at this time, which, I remember, threw an awful kind of light on the myths setting forth the endless labour of Sisyphus and the fruitless work of the Danaïdes in hell.

Clergyman though he was, all this ebullient zeal and youthful extravagance of aspiration annoyed my father as if the translation of faith into practice had been an impiety, and not an effort after godliness. We will grant the clumsiness of the method—still, the effort was always there. Logical Christianity seemed to him a dream as fanatical as it was inconvenient. All that was necessary for our salvation was—to believe the Bible, obey our parents, say our prayers night and morning, go to church regularly, and keep ourselves free from forbidden sins. More than this was to fall on the other side and go over into presumption.

He venerated the saints and martyrs of page: 92 past times; but he maintained that the past was not the present, and that the age of enthusiasm, like that of miracles, had died out. Had persecution been revived, he would have stood firm for his own part, and he would have exhorted others to a like fidelity. But as no more fires in Smithfield would be lighted, at least in our generation, and no one would now call out: ‘Christianos ad leones!’ he held spiritual assent more valuable than practical imitation, and quiet walking in the cleanly parts of the broad highway better than scaling eccentric heights and shouting ‘Excelsior!‘ from the clouds.

It was useless for me to turn to him for guidance. He repulsed me with coldness, or testily chid me with arrogance, when I carried my difficulties between faith and practice to him. He accused me of presumption in thus questioning the lives of men older, better, wiser than myself—such page: 93 a mere unformed lad as I was! And ever, with perfect justice and uncompromising logic, he pointed out the inconsistency of my aspirations after superior piety with my acted life of passion and misconduct. My conscience told me he was right when he thus flung me back with the argument ‘ad rem.’ What had I to do with good or godliness—I, the child of sin, whose very love was a tempest, whose quarrels were volcanic eruptions, whose repentance was a tropical storm, and whose virtues themselves were as unsettling and disturbing as were his faults? If I could just scrape in by conformity, that was all I need hope for. To attempt more was as irrational as if a lame man who could not walk should try to leap.

The wave of religious revivalism, just beginning to break on the arid shores of ecclesiastical indifference, was to my father a sign of storm and shipwreck, not of healthy page: 94 movement. He stood apart from both Evangelical enthusiasm and Tractarian authority with equal dislike for each. Through the former, moreover, he had received personal annoyance of a grave kind. During his five years' absence in Kent, his curate, one Mr. Black, had ‘awakened’ and ‘converted’ the parish of Eden to a high pitch of evangelical fervour. A schism in the place was the natural consequence. The Evangelicals said that my father had not been a faithful minister of the Word, and that the Gospel had never been preached to them before the advent of Mr. Black; and the sleepy old souls, who disliked innovations, stood by their kind-hearted vicar who did so much quiet good in the place, though he did not ‘pan out’ on free will and prevenient grace, baptismal regeneration and faith before works. They scouted the new order as fantastic and extreme; and thought evening parties, where prayers took the page: 95 place of the former round games, and expounding recondite doctrines that of the old forfeits, not only monstrously dull but also unseemly.

Their sheet-anchor was Conservatism and keeping things as they were. What had done for their fathers was good enough for them, and ought to be good enough for their children. No improvements, however much they were needed, met with their support. They saw no good in the Sunday-schools, which had been built and were kept up by a rich adherent of the energetic curate; and the ‘restoration’ of the old church by the same generous hand was an offence to them. Munificence had a hard fight with chronic obstructiveness before it got leave to bestow; and every stone that was laid and every ornament that was added was subjected to hostile criticism and opposition.

Naturally my father was not so backward as this. He recognised the good and beauty page: 96 of all these changes. The restored church was really magnificent; and the fine organ, with its organist and well-trained choir, was a decided advance on old Adam and his pitch-pipe. The Sunday-school teachers too, kept those unruly children in order; while the low pews, all looking one way, held the congregation together and prevented the sleepy-heads from snoring. But the finer surroundings demanded a more stately method; and in his heart my dear, indolent father, when he came back into residence, regretted the old familiar ways, and felt strange in all this new niceness, where he had to be for ever on parade and always alert and in order. If the glory of God could have been fitly set forth without so much ado, it would have been more pleasing to him. He thought it just a little in excess—as he thought my poor, purblind efforts very greatly in excess.

My father and I, not in harmony on reli- religious page: 97 gious matters, were at issue in politics—High Tory, according to his age and training, as he was; Republican of the crudest academic type as was I. We had many a stormy scene; for I was such an impulsive fool I could never hold my peace, and when my mind teemed with thoughts that knocked at the door of my lips, they had to come forth, for good or ill.

‘I would rather see the devil himself let loose on the earth than the Radicals get the upper hand in the country!’ my father said to me one day in a paroxysm of rage, when I had rashly introduced the subject of the first Chartist petition, just then presented to Parliament.

‘And I hold all kings and tyrants as direct emissaries of the devil, and that “Vox populi, vox Dei,”’ was my defiant reply.

For which piece of impertinence my father called me a puppy and incontinently knocked me down.

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In those days O'Connell was my political idol; and I seriously thought of running away from home to offer myself to him as the servant and soldier of liberty, good for any work he might give me to do. Had not Godfrey, that best and noblest of us all, gone to join the Poles in their rise against Russia? and was not the freedom of a country beyond one's own small nationality? Wherefore, for all my patriotism, I rather inconsistently longed for the Irish to take up arms, that I might imitate my brother's splendid example and fight their tyrants—ourselves—for their liberties. I thought Byron's ‘Irish Avatar’ the finest bit of poetry the world had ever seen—run hard, however, by Campbell's ‘Song of the Greeks;’ and I used to declaim these two poems with a ferocious energy which made my sister Ellen call me, in her quiet way, ‘a perfect monster’—while Edwin added: ‘You are just a maniac, Chris, and ought to be put into a madhouse.’

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If I found in O'Connell my Leonidas, my Brutus, my Tell—any one you like who shall best express the anax andrōn of history and liberty—Sheil was my Demosthenes; and I used to devour his speeches as if they had been the text of a new Gospel. In the smaller men, of whom our own Liberal county member was the natural chief, I saw the modern representatives of the immortal Three Hundred. The French Revolution was the divine birthday of European liberty—I am not far from the same belief now! Lafayette, thin and respectable mediocrity that he was, took, in my ardent imagination, heroic proportions and colossal merits; and I undutifully rejoiced over the discomfiture of my country in the American War of Independence. I believed in Greece and abjured Turkey. I adored Poland and I hated Russia. Joan of Arc, the Maid of Saragossa and Charlotte Corday, were my feminine ideals; but the old Judaic heroines, page: 100 such as Judith and Jael, were even then abhorrent, and I marvelled much how God could have found them worthy.

I envied the dead of all times and in all places who had known how to die for Liberty; and I held the apotheosis of humanity to have been reached in Old Greece and Republican Rome. I burned as with fever when I read of old-time tyrannies, and shouted to the skies when they were avenged;—for the past was as the present to me, and my vivid imagination bridged the gap with the living lines of sympathy. I raged dumbly, or broke out into stormy deprecation when my father, as he often did, read aloud the most pungent bits of the ‘Anti-Jacobin’ and I held Canning as no better than Judas Iscariot. All of which means that I was as intolerant as the men whose intolerance I reviled—as arbitrary as the tyrants who had oppressed free thought and slaughtered independent action.

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And I tried to indoctrinate Edwin with all this burning hatred of oppression, all this admiration for the assassins of tyrants, all this sympathy with revolt which filled me as with a divine afflatus. But when my proselytism was more noisy and aggressive than usual, he simply shook his fair curly head with his favourite little action of disdain, and told me that I was an ass for my pains—for we were a plain-spoken lot, and did not mince our terms among ourselves. And when I bothered him too much he lost his patience and got annoyed, telling me that I was the most unendurable nuisance and the biggest idiot going, and that if I did not hold my tongue he would leave the room. Then I stormed at his civic and political indifferentism, which to me was a real crime; and probably tore out of doors to work off my anger and cherish may sense of isolation by long lonely rambles among the mountains, where page: 102 I felt like some exile banished for the sake of liberty—friendless among men, but supported by the immortal justice of his cause.

It was towards the beginning of this political phase in the ‘Sturm und Drang’ period of my life that the Chartist riots were on hand. With what vague dread and sympathy combined they filled me! I was quite sure that their cause was holy and that their demands were just; but the thought of danger, when brought home to my own people, froze the blood in my veins with horror. I might shout ‘The Song of the Greeks’ to wind and sky for as long as I liked, but I had no fancy for seeing the beaks of our home ravens crimsoned with the precious blood of friends and family! Still, if there were to be a general revolution, I used to assure Edwin, I would protect them all. Of course I should join the insurgents; but, if the worst came to the page: 103 worst, my Brothers the Chartists for my sake would hold harmless all I loved. And they would place an armed guard at our gate, who would require the password from all who came near, and allow no one to enter with evil intent. And we would receive into the rectory all our best friends, and I would be their saviour. For myself, if the royalists won, I would not take my life at their hands at a gift.

I do not think my assurance had a very tranquillizing effect on my brother or my sisters, who somehow, with the illogicality of youth, made me responsible for their terror. How young it all was!

I shall never forget my strange emotion when, one day, we heard the guns over by Carlisle—we were then at Braeghyll, which was at the back of the mountains. We were walking on the high moor which runs into the plain where Carlisle stands. My father said it was the Chartists firing at and page: 104 being fired on by the soldiers; and he looked grave and anxious, and did not abuse the poor fellows. His kind heart carried it over his political passions, and he was sorry for the men who would have to suffer. And how vividly I too realized the fact of war being within this measurable distance of our home; but oh! how my blood leapt for hope that the cause of Liberty would prevail! But I dared not speak. When my father was in such a mood as to-day, I was awed by loving reverence into silence.

About this time a party of about thirty men one day surged in at the rectory gates, and came up to the house, demanding bread and money. My father chanced to be from home this day; which was as well; for the men were at first inclined to be blustering and rude, and my father's quick temper ‘flew’ at insolence as quickly as the seed-vessel of the balsam flies at the touch. He page: 105 would have been kind enough to them had they been respectful; but he would have braved all consequences had they been brutal. The sight of my pretty sisters, however, and of us two young boys, soon soothed them into a pleasant frame of mind; and when I went out boldly among them, and fraternized with them, joining with them in their general abuse of all aristocrats and mill-owners, and talking seditious nonsense with the best, they grew quite friendly and confidential. One of them justified my former boasts by assuring me, with an oath, that when their day came we should have no cause to be ‘afeard.’ The rectory should be marked with white chalk, and not a hair of our heads should be harmed.

‘For thy sake, my brave lad!’ said the speaker, laying his hand on my shoulder kindly.

So the adventure passed off without more page: 106 damage than that which came from a temporary domestic famine. For the men generously refused to take any money from such a young, irresponsible set as we were: ‘Nay, we isn't rogues!’ they said; and after their bread and cheese and beer, they left us with a ringing shout, and ‘God bless the parson's childer!’ flung back as their parting words, when they passed through the gate.

Another time we got into an excited crowd as we were driving back from Carlisle. There had been a mass-meeting of the mill-hands there, and they took my brother Godfrey for Feargus O'Connor. They swarmed over the carriage in noisy and rather inconvenient enthusiasm, insisting on shaking hands with us all; till Godfrey grew angry with their familiarity to our sisters, and, knocking one drunken fellow down, drove off at a smart pace. His ideas of fraternity did not include grimy paws thrust into Ellen's pretty hands; and half-drunken oper- operatives page: 107 atives claiming us all as their ‘mates’ was bringing the ideal down to the vulgar real with a run—making of Bellerophon carrying Theseus a cart-horse driven by a satyr.

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