A Light in the Gloom: chapter 3


Romance

“Reality seen through a prism”

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

AN OLD MAN’S TALE

Chapter III

She moved upon the earth a shape of brightness,
A power that from its objects scarcely drew
One impulse of her being—in her lightness
Most like some radiant cloud of morning dew,
Which wanders thro’ the waste air’s pathless blue.
To nourish some far desert: she did seem
Beside me, gathering beauty as she grew,
Like the bright shade of some immortal dream,
Which walks, when tempest sleeps, the wave of life’s dark stream

Shelley

My patron, Sir Henry Houghton, had a son about one year older than myself, who had just returned from his travels on the Continent to be present at the festival given by his father to celebrate his coming of age. Great were the rejoicings upon this event. Visitors arrived from far and near—oxen and sheep were roasted—ale was given to the young—blankets to the old—all Walton-le-dale rejoiced, and its inhabitants strove to be cheerful and gay. I was one of the most active superintending the festivities; but a weight was on my spirits—a cloud was on my brows—I strove by continued bustle to regain my usual flow of spirits, but I strove in vain; though compelled to join the throng, its hilarity seemed a mockery to my heart. Have you never, my children, had this unaccountable sensation oppress you, this visitation from the future, foreshadowing a calamity of which reason has not given you the least intimation? I have had several such in my life and they were ever harbingers of evil—the low murmurs which preceded the rising storm. Among the guests the rector and his family were of course included. Edgar had returned from College on purpose to be present at this festival. I am thus minute in describing these events for they are indelibly impressed on my mind, and gave a colour to my whole after life. The morning was spent by the villagers in feasting and rejoicing; towards afternoon the guests began to arrive, and the old mansion resounded with unaccustomed mirth. Having to busy myself with the outdoor sports I knew not what occurred in the mansion, yet often did I wish to desert the revellers on the lawn, were [where] Mr. Fletcher, the Baronet’s old steward, and myself were stationed, to gain one glimpse of the sweet and fairy-like form of my beloved Alice, but everything conspired to frustrate my desires, and I went home as daylight began to dawn, moody and discontented. On the following day my apprenticeship expired, according to the usual custom, I had to give a supper to the trade, and we spent a jovial night. I forced myself to be gay, and by repeated stimulants strove to drive away dejection, but my heart was at the rectory; I longed to hear how Alice had spent the evening of the festival; I wished to impart to her the new and undefined sensations which my entrance into manhood had given birth to; for when a long period of apprenticeship has expired, however young you may then be, you seem suddenly to start into manhood; you leave youth and bondage behind, and anticipate that liberty alone will be the greatest of blessings; that having no master to control you, all other evils will vanish: but find too often, to your cost, that this liberty is the liberty to starve—that if you would eat, you must again acknowledge a master—must exchange the thoughtlessness of the apprentice for the cares and anxieties of manhood—in ceasing to be a slave according to law must endure the still worse slavery of poverty. My master had engaged my services in this second description of bondage at liberal wages, but I needed and obtained a week’s leisure to collect my scattered thoughts and to serve as a boundary between these two stages of my life. Early dawn found me in the sweet village of my nativity, for hours I found no one stirring of whom I could make inquiry. I at length saw one of the servants, and learned that Alice had not returned home, but was stopping a week with Sir Henry at the Hall, and that they had that morning started to spend the day at Houghton Castle, about twelve miles distant, the ancestral seat of the family, where even royalty had deigned to visit them, but which was now rapidly decaying beneath the sure but gradual advances of time, I need not describe my feelings on learning this new disappointment. Instinctively I turned my steps in that direction, and was wandering among its picturesque ruins, seeking in vain to gain a glance from my Alice, but they departed without her being aware of my presence. A week passed away ere by any species of management I could gain an interview with Alice, and that interview sealed my fate. I think I still see her leaning against the old pear-tree near the entrance to the church-yard, her black hair flowing carelessly adown her shoulders and neck, her features languid and dejected, her dark eyes glistening with tears, whilst in accents of grief she informed me that the young heir of Houghton had proferred [proffered] her his love; that both their parents were favourable to his suit, and that on her courage and determination alone depended our future fate. I was absolutely stupefied at this recital—the forebodings of my soul were realised—I had instinctively dreaded some evil from the hour of the young baronet’s return, and the evil had smote me even to the heart; now, for the first time, I saw all the madness, all the insanity of my passion. I had never calmly reflected upon it before—now it overwhelmed me. Alice sunk not beneath the blow that prostrated me, she still swore to love me and me only; that if they still persisted in this hateful marriage, she would abandon all and fly for refuge to me. Vain refuge! I felt that fate was against me, that I could not even share my crust with her; for that crust was dependent upon Sir Henry’s pleasure. In this delirium of dread I tore myself from her arms—I rapidly crossed the Darwen—I plunged into the deep woods and regretted that the waters which had embosomed my parents, had in their cruelty spared myself. Since the death of my parents, this was the first serious ill I had encountered, all had gone so smoothly with me that, like a wild horse, I foamed and raged against the idea of control, yet like him I knew and felt convinced of my utter want of power to cope with the evil that menaced me. Had I been of any other trade I would have wedded Alice, though all the powers of heaven and hell had confronted me and bade me desist—but I knew that it was in that part of the kingdom alone that I could procure employment; and I also knew too well that the aristocratic blood of her father, combined with his disappointment at the loss of such an excellent match, would cause him to see us perish of starvation rather than abate one iota of his pride; and with the opposition of two such men as Squire Houghton and Parson Radcliffe, it would have been utterly impossible for me to have obtained employment at any bowyers in that or the adjoining counties, where alone the trade was carried on. For myself, I would have defied them; but Alice, the mild, the delicate, the gentle Alice, how could I expose her to such fearful and unaccustomed evils? Alice! wife of my bosom! how I wronged thy noble soul to think that poverty would daunt thy generous impulse; if thou canst hear me Alice! if thy spirit is not all absorbed in the elements of beauty, thou wilt listen with pleasure to this my latest testimony to thy goodness; and forgive me if for once I dared to doubt thy courage and shrink from that trial which thou so truly wouldst have braved. Oh! that man was more deeply impressed with the boundless extent of woman’s fortitude and woman’s devotion; then, instead of treating her as the plaything of an hour, as a beautiful flower to wear in his bosom in a holiday moment, and when its fragrance became exhausted to throw it idly aside, he would then value her for her super-eminence in the virtues which he holds to be peculiarly his own—for her wisdom in council—for her nicety of discrimination—for the tact she displays to meet every varied emergency—and, above all, for the courage and fortitude with which she meets and sustains every adversity. While treated as a spoilt child, can we expect woman to act as a rational companion? Treat her as your equal—make her the confidant of your cares, the sharer of your anticipations, and the partner of your sorrows, and my experience has demonstrated that she will bear herself with nobility of soul that man himself seldom attains to. In that evil hour I knew not the value of these truths, my whole soul was filled with rage and despair. With what bitterness of heart did I regret that I was not a peasant, a weaver, a baker, or any handicraft that I could pursue in despite of their opposition! With such wild communings with myself I at length reached the mansion of Sir Henry. I flew from it as from a pestilence, for even in my anger it reproached me with ingratitude. I hasted through the fields towards my home and threw myself on the couch—but sleep I could not.

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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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