Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 2. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
previous
next
page: 247

CHAPTER VIII.

MY personal happiness in its fullest sense was lost for ever. What these late years had taken from me could never be regained; and the hope of my manhood, like the certainties of my youth, had gone down into the grave of those dead illusions which we bury one by one as we pass along the highway of life. I should never now be the conqueror of fate and the controller of circumstance, as I once used to believe—happy, successful, triumphant, by the very force of my will—the very vitality of my courage. Like the rest, I must bear the page: 248 cross rather than wear the crown; and no more than Prometheus could I free myself from the vulture at my heart. But, if joy had gone from me, I could still be faithful to the right as I had made it for myself; and I could always be strong.

And I could never become one of those anæmic worshippers of sorrow who are content to mope away their lives in sad-eyed dreams of ‘what might have been, had things been different.’ My life must ever be active and objective—before me, not behind. To lie down by the open grave of our dead hopes seems to me both cowardly and insane; for the forces which are not utilized become poisonous and destructive.

Like all of my character and temperament, at once resentful and compassionate, I was both a philanthropist and a fighter. I would have bound up the wounds with the Samaritan, but I would have broken the heads of the Priest and the Levite. And page: 249 the one action would have been as justifiable as the other. It has taken many years of much chastening to get this fighting blood toned down to moderation, and to dissolve my strong conceptions of the absolute into a more tolerant and a wider acceptance of the relative.

But in my youth and early manhood all this passion was in the harmonious ordering of things. Revolt was in the air; and public events had added fuel to the original fire of my temperament, and set the tow of my imagination ablaze. Many facts in living history had seemed to me like modern reproductions of the old time ‘Acta Sanctorum’ of liberty. Thus, while I was yet a boy, Frost had repeated for me the part of Camille Desmoulins, with that Newport gaol for a minor Bastille and Henry Vincent as a translated and anachronistic Hampden. The Rebecca riots had been a righteous Jacquerie; the trial of each leader in those page: 250 riots had been the ostracism of a true Aristides—the punishment of nobleness because noble; and I firmly believed that Sir James Graham, when he opened Mazzini's letters, was the paid and authorized spy of that House of Hapsburg of which, as of our own Stuarts, no evil was too great to be believed. My old idol, King Dan—the modern Gracchus who had embodied all the praises lavished on Grattan by Byron in the ‘Irish Avatar’—had died, like the worn-out wounded old lion my fancy had depicted him. Broken in health, enfeebled in mind, pitifully repentant of faults which had sprung from the grand and glorious vitality of his nature, he had sighed out his last breath in the bosom of his Mother in Rome; but, if he had gone, Ireland still lived, and her wounds were yet unhealed and bleeding. And when the United Irishman preached its gospel to young Ireland, and Smith O'Brien, Meagher page: 251 and Mitchell came to the front like new Emmetts and Fitzgeralds—I too contributed my small brick to the building of the temple, and felt twice the man I was before.

I had seen the Chartist movement quenched in its original form; but the Corn Law League and the Reform Bill had already given us more solid gains than my poor friends and brothers could have granted had they even had their will. I had seen the French Republic proclaimed, and I had believed in the formula, ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,’ as a new gospel against which the gates of hell itself would not prevail; and I had seen the murdered corpse of this fair hope lying beneath the heel of Louis Napoleon, and the empire established on the basis of perjury and murder. I had witnessed the trial of Orsini, noted the care he took of his long white finely shaped hands—even there in the dock—and I had page: 252 thought, between the two it was a pity this one had been the victim! So that the ‘Sturm und Drang’ period of my own life had been in a manner repeated, as well as justified, by public events; and, as I say, revolt and excitement had been in the air all round.

Now things were modifying; and my own thoughts, like politics, were taking a new and more practical shape.

The miserable condition of the poor; the injustice of existing arrangements, both in the tenure of the land and in the relations between labour and capital; the need of ‘levelling up’—of inculcating greater self-respect among the masses by improved education, by increased political responsibilities, by better material conditions in food and dwelling—these were the subjects which now sat nearest to my heart. They made the more mature phase into which had passed that crude academic ideal of page: 253 Liberty with sword and banner, wild hair and floating plumes, crying, ‘Death to the Tyrants!’ on the ramparts, and shouting the ‘Song of the Greeks’ to the winds, which had been my dream in the boyish days of romance. This kind of thing had gone for ever; and I had come to the knowledge that reforms, to be lasting, must be legal, and that true liberty comes by the slower process of growth and gradual fitness, rather than by the sudden leap into supreme power of men unused to responsibilities and incapable of self-government. To be sure, armed revolution has been, and still is, necessary where supreme power is backed by the army, where abuses are maintained by the law and peaceable reforms are impossible. Then there is nothing for it but a hand-to-hand fight for the freedom of the many against the tyranny of the few; and the sacred right of insurrection cannot be proclaimed too loudly nor too loyally upheld. page: 254 But under a constitutional government, where liberty of speech, association and remonstrance is already won, armed rebellion is unnecessary; and bit by bit reform, so loftily despised by heady youth, manhood learns to respect as the only revolutionizing method fit for rational people.

‘Ohne Hast, ohne Rast’ is the best motto for the political reformer. But there must be that ‘ohne Rast;’ and the nuisance to be carted away must not be left to obstruct the highroad.

Thus, making a wide leap onward, the Education Bill was a better measure than would have been the Chartist demand for the payment of members, whereby working men, who did not know their real needs nor the best way of supplying them, might sit in the House and put back their own cause by ignorance and unpracticality. And again, limitation of a proprietor's power over the land, and the enforcement page: 255 of the doctrine of duties as a substitute for that of rights—so that he shall not be able to evict whole villages at his pleasure, nor to convert arable land into deer-forests because these let better than fields and farms, and shall be forced to build and maintain labourers' cottages on his estate, at convenient distances from the centres of work; limitation of the acreage to be held by individuals; abolition of plurality in estates as in ecclesiastical holdings—of the law of entail and of the power of willing away property, so that a man shall never more be able to disinherit his wife and children, thus carrying his enmity beyond the grave—all these would be wiser as first steps and thin edges, than sudden nationalization, even with so many years' purchase as the solatium. And these things have to come. They too, are in the air; as is limitation of the powers and a change in the processes of the House of Lords page: 256 —to be obtained peaceably but inexorably.

Violence, the ugly side of reaction against wrong, is the enemy which we Liberals and iconoclasts have to contend with in ourselves. It has already done as much to retard the birth-hour of true liberty as have both Russia and Rome. Where the gospel of the knife, of dynamite, of the guillotine is preached, there liberty loses, and by just so much wrong and oppression gain. Threats are of no use unless they can be carried out; and the attack which does not frighten and subdue irritates instead. The salvation of society will come only from that kind of philosophic and scientific Radicalism which sets itself to mend the evil of things, not by cataclysms and coups-d'état, but by the gradual education of public opinion, by orderly organizations, by the exposition of causes, keeping free of personal rancour, and by the steady and page: 257 sustained pressure of argument, rather than by appeals to the passions or even the emotions of the multitude.

This would have been the work of the Positivists, had Dr. Congreve's social formula been wider and freer. He missed a noble opportunity, by which, however, the other section has profited. Yet, in spite of the perfect truth in part of the teaching of this other section—in spite of all Frederic Harrison's eloquence and glorious humanity—the world refuses to go over. Positivism, as given in the beginning, was too truly ‘Catholicism without Christianity’—that is, mental subjection without spiritual consolation; arrested development without the beauty, the poetry, the finer fancies by which the elder sister gratifies the dwarfed intelligence of those for whom the last word has been said, the final revelation given, the finishing touch laid. Scientific reform— page: 258 philosophic democracy—are what the world wants; remembering that science includes the element of growth and the possibility of mutation, and that life is perpetual flux and interchange of force and form.

Anything that made for liberty was sure of my poor support. I sympathized with all the movements afloat, and knew something of them all as they rose and swam, then sank and were lost in the depths of completed things. The Christian Socialists, with their brave leader, Parson Lot, at their head, spinning golden webs which drifted away into nothingness, fastened as they were to nothing more solid than the mere poetry of Christianity—the Republican formula canonized:—The Secularists whose very name frightened respectable folk, though they were so dry and formal and severely moral, and whose blameless chief stood as a kind of diabolic Demiurge who would create a Pandemonium where had page: 259 been an Eden, though now he is looked on as a fossilized kind of Conservative by his successors and overtakers:—The dreamy and unpractical Republicans, whose ‘organ’ was printed down among the mountains, with no public to buy it when done, and with only the ruin of the enthusiast who manipulated the whole matter as the net result:—The eloquent, if not quite satisfactory, Unitarian who preached on Bentham and the Holy Spirit—poetry to-day, and free-trade to-morrow—and who, utilitarian from head to heel, ‘would bless a river for its beauty, and bid it turn a mill’:—Kossuth, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Victor Hugo—the men who had written words which burned the hearts of those who read them, and the men who had fought behind the barricades as their practical commentary thereon:—The French who had escaped Cayenne, and who cursed the Man of December:—The Russian, who had escaped Siberia, and who cursed page: 260 the Czar:—The Hungarians and Poles, the Lombards and Venetians, who had put Spielberg and I Piombi behind them, and who swore vengeance to the House of Hapsburg, like so many Archangel Michaels against Satan:—The Italians who had fled from the Neapolitan dungeons and the Papal prisons:—The new Luther and the modern Tell:—The unsuccessful conspirators of all nations—I knew them all. And I believed in some, while I confess I gravely doubted the sincerity of others.

For though exile was a bad business, say for those Sicilian gentlemen and noblemen who sacrificed place and fortune for the rational liberties of their country, it was a means of living, like any other, for those shady patriots who were less martyrs than adventurers, and whose politics were a profession rather than a principle. And even among the best of the sincere—always excepting such men as the Scalias and their page: 261 friends—there was a notable absence of good sense and workable methods, and a great deal of childish noise and bluster.

I did my best, however;—myself not being exactly qualified to sit in the seat of the judge condemning exaggeration; and I gave both my strength and my substance to the cause of freedom in general. I was still hopeful enough to believe that we were on the threshold of a new development, at the fork of a new departure. The echo of the high hopes with which we, the young men of that time, had greeted the establishment of the first International Exhibition, that precursor of universal peace, still lingered in the air, and turned to noble music every little scrannel pipe that squeaked. We looked to all four corners of the earth for deliverance from the social and economic ills which oppressed our poorer brethren; and our Saviours of Society were as many as there were ingenious men to draw out a pro- programme page: 262 gramme and bold ones to take the initiative.

Our belief was, in a sense, omnivorous, and adapted all that came as food. Schemes for the regeneration of the world strewed the ground like golden dust, and Vidocq himself could not have gathered up all the ends which formed the tangled skein of our hopes. But I can never be sufficiently grateful for the small grain of caution, which lies like a two-pennyworth of common-sense in the midst of the intolerable quantity of impulse with which I am handicapped, that I forebore to join any association, and refused to become a member of any of the secret societies by which I was surrounded and solicited.

What a crowd of memories surge around me as I write! Kossuth's triumphal entry into London, matched for enthusiasm only by that of Garibaldi's still grander apotheosis some years after:—The assault on page: 263 Haynau by the sturdy brewers who resented the presence among them of the woman-flogger:—and our own piano-wires in Jamaica vibrating in the near distance! That crowded meeting at St. Martin's Hall, where Kossuth and Mazzini sat on the platform—the one so showy, so brilliant, so like the hero of romance, the other shy, reserved, silent, intense—the one phosphorescent, the other hidden fire:—The establishment of the Whittington Club, which was to be the beginning of all social good and the grand refining influence and ‘leveller up’ of the ‘second set,’ where ladies were to dance with shopmen, and gentlemen were to squire, but not flirt with shopwomen:—The great lights of the literary world, Macaulay, Carlyle, Ruskin, Grote, Tennyson, Mills, the Brownings—in his own degree, Arthur Helps—George Henry Lewes, Miss Martineau, ‘Jane Eyre’ and Mrs. Gaskell, together with page: 264 Thackeray and Dickens:—all are heaped up in my mind without order or chronology; and I could not without some trouble lay these memories in line nor arrange them in their sequence. I only remember the seething time that it all was, and the hope which was born into the world, to be extinguished by fear—even as that divine child, lying in a blaze of light in the cradle, was killed by the frightened nurse as a thing of horror, not cherished as a gift of glory.

Other things come before me as I write. I remember the evening when news of the Czar's death flashed into London. To me it was the forerunner of peace and the redemption of thousands of lives through the loss of one. Therefore it was a thing rightfully welcome to England. Yet Nicholas was a man of whom his worst enemies must speak with respect for his person, how much soever they may hate the system of which he was the crowning page: 265 symbol. I was in a state of boiling excitement and could not remain at home, but dashed out in a hansom, I did not care where. I remember driving round Regent's Park in the aimless way of simple emotion trying to work itself off; and then I went to the house of some pleasant friends, with whom I was accustomed to spend many of my evenings. I thought they would sympathize with my exultation, and share in my rejoicing over the probable speedy settlement of the war; and I bounded up the stairs, two steps at a time, bursting into the room like a whirlwind raised by laughter.

I found the wife pale and in tears; the young people sitting about in mute, desponding, half-terrified distress; the husband pacing the room in the violent agonies of despair. What did it all mean? I was aghast, and not the less so when the sweet wife sobbed out:

page: 266

‘We are ruined, Crishna! My dear, we are absolutely and eternally ruined!’

Mr. Smith was on the Stock Exchange. He had speculated for a fall; and the sudden death of the Czar had sent all investments up like so many balloons, and swept away his last penny.

This was the first time that I had come face to face with the sorrow of private loss through public gain; and it made an indelible impression on me. Natural as was this despair of the ruined individual, in face of the general and national good it seemed to me so strangely unpatriotic, so fatally egotistic!

Another strange experience, but before this time, was my introduction to the Queen's Bench Prison. Some friends had got into trouble and were there—the husband as the debtor, the wife as the nurse, admitted on a doctor's certificate. We had a good time, as the Americans say, in that meagrely fur- furnished page: 267 nished dingy room, where the height of good company assembled. That handsome Irish notability—I wonder if he remembers those charming little early suppers, where the Sicilian dressed the macaroni, the Frenchman mixed the salad, the nurse-wife supplied the Attic salt, and where we were all as gay as larks?

Among the debtors of that time was a man who had taken his wife's unsecured fortune and lavished it on the famous Phryne of the day. He drifted into the Queen's Bench as the moral of his fable; and his wife, with her little child, came daily to see and comfort him. I always thought this one of the finest instances of womanly forgiveness I had ever met with; and I very much question whether this limp-backed Anthony were worthy of so much consideration from his patient Octavia.

I used to take my caged friends sauces and groceries, and was stopped at the gate, page: 268 while the turnkeys drew the corks of the Lazenbys and Burgesses, to make sure that nothing less innocent than Harvey or ketchup was in the bottles. We sat on the bed and boxes at our symposia, chairs being deficient; and some of the merriest and wittiest hours of my life were spent in that queer little room, ‘10 in 12,’ as it was numbered. Perhaps it was somewhat too much of a ‘danse Macabre’; and the ebullient gaiety of all concerned might have had in it a certain false ring, as of those who wished to forget and endeavoured to hide.

But we were all too well-bred to hint at the skeleton; and indeed some of us did not see the grinning skull beneath the roses. For the world is so blind!—and of all qualities extant, perspicuity is the rarest. So we all went with pretty constant fidelity to visit the Government debtor and his nurse-wife; and gaiety turned into a play what had been assigned as a penance, till the page: 269 beneficent hand of patronage did its work, and the authorities came to a compromise which opened the cage-door and set the captives free.

previous
next