A Light in the Gloom: chapter 1


Romance

“Reality seen through a prism”

A LIGHT IN THE GLOOM; OR, THE POLITICS OF THE PAST.

AN OLD MAN’S TALE

Chapter I

Warm tears throng fast! the tale may not be said;
Know then, that when this grief had been subdued,
I was not left, like others, cold and dead,
The spirit whom I loved in solitude
sustained his child: the tempest-shaken wood,
The waves, the fountains, and the hush of night—
These were his voice, and well I understood
His smile divine, when the calm sea was bright
With silent stars, and Heaven was breathless with delight.

Shelley

I will begin this history with my recollections of early childhood, for it is always pleasant, and sometimes profitable, to lift the veil which time and care have woven around the heart, and live again in the far off, but never to be forgotten past. I was born in the year 1770, in the pleasant village of Walton-le-dale, near Preston, in Lancashire. My parents were hand-loom weavers. They lived in an old house near the bridge, the garden reaching down to the Ribble side. I was an only child, and consequently was reputed to be petted and spoiled. I distinctly remember the old schoolmistress from whom I imbibed the first elements of scholastic lore; but I took more delight in sporting on the common, in fishing in the Darwen for snigs and flooks, or assisting the fishermen to haul their nets for the famous salmon caught in the Ribble, than in attending to the lessons of this old lady. For days, aye, and for weeks, in the summer season, to the great sorrow of my parents, have I played the truant, seduced by the pleasure of bird-nesting, otter hunting, or the still greater delight of emptying the holes in the rocky beach of the Ribble, and thereby ensnaring the finny tribe which had taken refuge therein, and which the retiring tide had left isolated in the little lakes amid the surrounding rocks and sands. From morning until evening there might I be found emptying hole after hole, each the work of some hours; but then how delightful when the prize was secured, and that, too, alive. Whether it was the innate feeling of humanity, I know not; but a fish then entrapped seemed worth one dozen taken by the treacherous wile of the hook and line. Thus I lived a free and gay-hearted child until I attained the age of nine years, when a scene occurred, which ever fills me with the saddest emotions, and which brought my childhood to a speedy close. The pretty village of Walton lies between the river Darwen and Ribble, the latter emptying itself into the Irish Sea, at a few miles distance. At spring and neap tides a large portion of the village is usually flooded, and for some days boats or punts have to be used as a means of conveyance, while the lower floors of many of the houses have entirely to be abandoned. The spring of 1779 had been unusually wet, the Darwen had completely overleaped its banks, and the archery grounds and all the surrounding meadows were one vast expanse of water. For several days prior to the spring-tide it had rained incessantly, and the waters of the Ribble were alarmingly high. Each hour the flood increased in volume; the whole village was alarmed; all communications, save by boat, was entirely cut off; the lower floor of our house was filled, and the waters even threatened to invade the upper story. Having had a knowledge for some days previously, from the exposed position of our dwelling, that we should inevitably be flooded, my parents had removed everything to the two upper rooms. We, therefore, experienced no especial inconvenience, save from confinement. True, the prospect was lonely and cheerless. It rained incessantly, and our firing was getting exhausted. We suffered from the damp: the flood had now lasted for two days, during which time my parents never closed their eyes. I slept with all the security of childhood, and know not at this hour whether I was most pleased or alarmed at the novelty of our situation. Alas! I dreamed not of the misery which was in store for me. The third day the water was evidently lower, and my father assumed his usual cheerfulness. It was but of short duration; the foundations of the house, undermined by the long-continued pressure of the water, gave way; a hollow gurgling sound filed my ears—a hurried exclamation of terror from my father—a wild scream of despair from my mother; and ere we had time for thought the whole building collapsed with a loud crash. The sound and scene of that moment will never depart from my remembrance. The pang was of short duration. I felt myself hurled against some hard substance, and with the wild agony of my mother’s dying shrieks ringing in my ears, consciousness departed. I knew naught more until I found myself at a neighbour’s house. The waters had disappeared; a bright sun was pouring its beams upon the damp earth, which gave forth clouds of exhalation. In a state of half-insensibility, I was gazing through the misty panes of the window which lighted the apartment where I lay, when the ruins of my father’s cottage attracted my attention. By slow degrees I comprehended the horrid past; still I knew not the fate of my parents. In reply to my frenzied inquiries I learned that they were both so injured by the concussion that their death was immediate. I was saved by clinging with convulsive grasp long after consciousness departed, to a large tub, called a dolly. From this perilous situation I was rescued by one of the neighbours. A week had elapsed since the accident occurred, during the whole of which I had been delirious. In this interval the remains of my parents had been consigned to the grave, followed by the whole population of the village, and many from the neighbouring town of Preston; for my parents who had migrated from the south, were much respected. Such a demonstration of feeling had never before occurred in the memory of the kind old woman who narrated to me these particulars. Many of the details of this narration were completely unheeded at the time. The dreadful death of my parents swallowed up all other feelings. I had never been remarkable for any great outward show of affection, but in the depths of my heart I intensely loved them: they were all in all to me. I had no brother, sister, or other relative to weaken my attachment to them. I had been a petted child. The position of a hand-loom weaver then was widely different from that which it is at the present time: we could then command all the necessaries of life, and I was even indulged in some of its luxuries; and perhaps the selfish feeling that I should now be deprived of them mingled with my filial grief, and rendered its pangs more acute. Oh, why should evil ever be mingled with good?—the spirit of darkness be ever contending with that of light? We accumulate machinery, we increase the total of our national wealth; but at the same time we increase the poverty of the labourer—we displace him, and he dies. The present generation is sacrificed to insure the greater civilisation of the next. When will men wake from this mental blindness? When will the crushed serf cease to be the bruised reed? When will men scorn equally to enact the tyrant or to bow the slave? Ponder, my children, upon these absurdities; resolve to surmount them, and they will disappear. If this feeling of selfishness really existed in my breast, experience proved it to be an error. The strangeness of the accident had attracted attention to my fate, and a handsome subscription had been got up, which, after defraying the expenses of the funeral, left a considerable overplus; and Sir Henry Houghton, a wealthy baronet, who resided at the Manor-house, had taken upon himself the charge of maintaining me until such time as I was capable of earning my own livelihood. Thus, my children, though I was early tried in the fire of adversity, yet was I spared the pangs of poverty. This circumstance probably altered my whole future character, and whilst preserving me from many errors, gave a stimulus to passions already too headstrong. For weeks after my first recovery I gave way to frightful paroxysms of grief, calling wildly for my lost parents. The more they attempted to soothe me, the more wildly I raged. Possessed of strong passions and a keen sensibility, unaccustomed to control my feelings, even the very idea of my grief being observed by others irritated me. This could not last long: the fever which seemed to have abated only to render me conscious of my loss, returned again with increased force; and when, at length, I recovered, my very weakness served to moderate the excess of my grief. Time, the great consoler, also surely, but insensibly, came to my relief; but many weary months elapsed ere I became even an approximation to the gay, light-hearted child I had previously been. The calm serenity of childhood seemed to have vanished; a confused and wildered existence appeared to have usurped its place; and though seventy years of varied emotions have seared and withered this heart, still when memory looks back upon the far past, the feelings of the child rise strongly in my breast, and I shed tears as bitter o’er my parents’ fate as ever watered their grave in the quiet churchyard of Walton-le-Dale.

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[Transcribed from a microfilmed copy of The People’s Paper at The Working Class Movement Library in Salford: https://www.wcml.org.uk/]

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