A Light in the Gloom: chapter 2


Romance

“Reality seen through a prism”

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

AN OLD MAN’S TALE

Chapter II

As mine own shadow was this child to me,
A second self far dearer and more fair;
Which clothed in undissolving radiancy
All those steep paths which languor and despair
Of human beings had made so dark and bare;
But which I trod alone—nor, till bereft
Of friends and overcome by lonely care,
Knew I what solace for that loss was left,
Though by a bitter wound my trusting heart was cleft.

Shelley

Day by day I feel my strength declining, and fear that I shall not complete my task. I shall therefore hasten over the events of my boyhood; suffice it to say that my patron continued me under the care of the poor widow in whose house I first found shelter, and that I attended the National School, at Walton-le-dale, until I attained my thirteenth year, when I was apprenticed to a bow-maker, in Preston, for a period of seven years. As a child, I had ever been fond of the sports of archery; this love increased as I grew in years, and I was delighted when they gratified my inclination by apprenticing me to Thomas Vardy, the most noted bow and cross-bow maker, in the northern district. Years rolled silently by; from a gloomy and abstracted boy I became a lively and enterprising youth; I was an enthusiast in my trade, and speedily made myself acquainted with all the classical and old English associations, inseparably connected with this once far-renowned weapon of warfare; these associations and recollections doubtless implanted a latent love of liberty in my mind, which only needed opportunity to break forth into a blaze; for while administering the artistic skill of a Robinhood, a Wallace, or a Tell, or that of the still remoter heroes of Grecian fable; who could resist honouring the cause to which they were wedded; but in these, my early days, the love of liberty was smothered under a love of the art, and long ere my apprenticeship expired, the fame of my skill extended far beyond my own circle, and not a match could be made within a circuit of many miles, but the poor apprentice, Edmund Sutcliffe, was included therein. Sir Henry Houghton was truly generous in supplying me with clothes and money during the whole of this period, and I often earned small sums by making lancewood bows and arrows for the youth of the town, or of Walton-le-dale, which was still my favourite place of resort; I was thus enabled to maintain a genteel appearance. Nature had been bountiful to me, I was tall and well-formed, and though the glow of ruddy health shone not in my cheeks, yet their very paleness caused the flush of excitement or exercise, to give them a clear and brilliant beauty peculiar to this description of features, which is the more startling from its contrast with their prior dulness. As the protégée of a wealthy baronet, I was looked up to by my own class in society, as an intelligent youth, an expert archer, and one well skilled in all athletic exercises. I was a favourite with the gentry in the neighbourhood, who in field, and in other sports, mingled far more among their dependents than customary with the present exclusive race.

And here, my children, I must remark that one of the great evils of our present times is, that you young men have no outlet for the ambitious and enterprising spirits natural to youth, save in debauchery and crime. Athletic games and sports are fast dying away; in large cities they are almost impracticable, even wrestling, boxing, and cudgel-playing, those rude outlets for this natural feeling will soon be among the things that were; we have no military exercises as in many other countries to supply their place; the age of heroism and chivalry is departed, and I fear that if this system continues, that all feelings of manliness and independence will be driven out of existence, from the want of due scope for their exercise; these may be the prejudices of an old man’s mind, but much, I fear, they contain at least the germ of truth. But a truce to these reflections, these wrecked fragments of a past age, indulged in perhaps the more strongly because I look back upon this period of my life with a calm and placid joy;—the clear stream flowed on unruffled by storms; it was the stillness of content, not the madness of excitement, which then pervaded my frame; but this quietude was of short duration, my fate was to mingle in the world’s strife, not to sip pleasures in a rustic bower.

I was in the last year of my apprenticeship, when an annual match between the Walton and Preston Archery Clubs came off, in the meadows by the Darwen side; I was a member of the Walton club, and my shooting that day was admirable; to me was awarded the two prizes, a silver bow and a golden arrow. I was in glorious spirits. Sir Henry complimented me highly on my skill; the vicar of Walton, who had been my most successful competitor, invited me, and others of the club, to his house to take refreshments, and participate in the rural sports, for it was the first of May. A maypole crowned with garlands stood in the centre of the lawn fronting the house, and all the elite of the village were gathered around. In my younger days, I had often spent some happy hours on this festival, which was regularly, I might say, almost religiously kept up; but some years had now elapsed since I had joined with them in their rustic dance, or had enjoyed the company of my two old playmates, the vicar’s only children, Edgar and Alice Ratcliffe. When a child I used to love with all a boy’s love the vicar’s little daughter; she was the chief companion of my otherwise solitary rambles; a thousand times had I torn my garments in getting birds’ nests to amuse her childish fancy; often have I carried her in my arms across the marshy meadows, and given her half of my store of the day’s sport when angling, or baiting for the finny tribe. The widow’s house where I resided adjoined the vicarage garden, and thus my little wife, as the widow termed her, was seldom, save in school hours, absent from my sight; her brother being older, was comparatively with us. Until this evening I had not seen her for some five years; she had been to a boarding school in a different part of the country, and I could scarce recognise my little Alice, in the handsome maiden my eyes now rested upon. I presume I must call it love at first sight, for when introduced by her father as an old acquaintance, and as victor in the archery sports of the day, I was confused, and at a loss to express one of the many feelings which rushed tumultuously to my heart; it was not bashfulness, my introduction into varied society had given me an air of assurance rather than of timidity; it was the workings of that passion which, until death snatched her away, I never ceased to entertain towards her.

Were I writing for the world, my children, I should not be thus explicit on after events, but you, who know me, know how true is this assertion. False to many gods of my early worship, to her and her memory I have ever remained true. By degrees I regained my composure, and learned from my fair informant that Edgar was at the University, and that she having finished her education, was going to reside at home. After partaking of some refreshment, we prepared to take our part in the festivity of the evening; with Alice for a partner, I joined the merry dancers round the maypole, and footed it with pleasure until the shades of evening compelled us to abandon the sport; all but a few guests then retired. I, too, was about leaving, but was pressed so strongly to stay, that I at length consented; my heart, though not my judgment, had consented at once. How that evening passed I know not, but I know from that period night after night I might have been regularly seen wending my way by the Ribble side, until I reached the vicar’s garden, where unknown to all, save one domestic, I had interviews, delicious interviews, with my beloved Alice. Alas! why are secret pleasures prized so dearly? Why do we seem possessed of a feverish desire to attain that, which circumstances have placed apparently beyond our reach? Is the love of excitement, I have before alluded to, a principal ingredient in this passion, or is it a part of that absorbing principle of our existence which ever impels us unknown, though we shrink with dread at passing its shadowy portals? Legislators and criminals, ye who make laws and ye who break them, are ye not equally influenced in you[r] acts by this all-pervading influence? this craving desire to appropriate that to yourselves which nature or circumstances have given to another? Cease then to mystify each other, and delude the world with your false and vain moralities. Whilst poverty and riches are twin brethren! whilst monopoly and theft are children of the same hateful parent! so long will the philosopher look upon ye both as equally guilty, but will pity the criminal and censure the legislator.

Alice had scarce attained her seventeenth year, I was not twenty. Young and inexperienced, with no parents or friend to counsel me, flattered by all I came in contact with, possessed of strong passions and sensitive feelings, can you wonder, my children, that I thought lightly upon the deceit I was practising towards one who had ever behaved kindly to me, and that blind to all the consequences, I dwelt only on the present joy; Alice and her love was all to me; why then should I seek to pry into futurity? Why should I listen to the warnings which ever and anon conscience whispered to my heart? Months passed by in this delirium of happiness, nature itself seemed to smile upon us, and our loves were gay and cheerful as the summer’s sky, or the harvest moon that smiled in peace above us. No discovery of our interviews had tended to mar the blissfulness of our feelings, whilst their very secrecy imparted to them a tincture of romance which well accorded with the tone of both our hearts. All was youth and summer, the winter was still in advance of us, but we were treading swiftly on its flight, and the shock came none the less rudely from this long interlude of calm.

You must not wonder, my children, why in a life abounding with excitement and adventure, I seem to pause on the very threshold, and apparently hesitate to advance; it is because the feelings and emotions now engendered have a colour and a tone to the whole of my after-existence. Life is full of varied bye-roads, some dark and dismal, leading to poverty and crime; others green and verdant, leading to peace and content: but its high roads are few, and their course is distinctly to be traced, even from the earliest times; they lead from one direct centre to another, and would we trace the map of the human heart, we must keep in the path they direct, glancing occasionally at the diverging lanes and alleys, but never getting entangled in their labyrinthine mazes, or the clue is lost, and we trace not the history aright. It is thus that poor humanity has ever been betrayed by others, or betrayed itself. Thus it is that history needs to be written. Its minor events, its bye paths, and its gewgaws, have alone been chronicled, whilst its high roads and its substantial realities have been left without an historian. We have the life of a king, instead of the life of a people; the records of a court in place of the chronicles of a nation. The high road is still to be seen, amid the surrounding paths, the records are still to be traced, but sadly obliterated and disfigured by the hand of malice, and the hand of time. All honour to those who shall succeed in restoring the lost characters! My love for Alice was one of those great paths in my life, which led to all its subsequent events, which impelled me onwards along its dreamy centre, until the goal was reached and my destiny accomplished.

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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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