A LIGHT IN THE GLOOM; OR, THE POLITICS OF THE PAST.
AN OLD MAN’S TALE
(Dedicated to the Chartist Public.)
To the Editor of “The People’s Paper,” —
Sir,—Having on a prior occasion written a tale in which was inwove the chief occurrences in the Chartist agitation since the year 1838, and many of our younger brethren having derived from that tale much of the knowledge which they possess of our past history as a party, I was contemplating writing a short sketch of the state of political parties since 1780 when the outline of the Charter was first drawn up by the Society for constitutional information. Whilst pondering on this subject the manuscript I now send you was placed in my hands by the son of the lately deceased patriot whose history it records, I thought that its publication would equally effect the object I had in view, that of placing before the present generation of ultra reformers a slight sketch of their elder brethren of the past, during the revolutionary epoch in France and Britain. I have taken the liberty of altering such circumstances as would tend to identify the narrator, such being the request of his survivors; but the tale is strictly founded on facts, and the historical portion may be implicitly relied upon.
Thomas Martin Wheeler
We part to meet again—but yon blue waste,
Yon desert, wide and deep, holds no recess;
Within whose happy silence thus embraced,
We might survive all ills in one caress:
Nor doth the grave—I fear ’tis passion less,
Nor yon cold vacant heaven—we meet again
Within the minds of men, whose lips shall bless
Our memory, and whose hopes its light retain
When these dissevered bones are trodden plain.
My Children,—Years and calamities have bowed down the once elastic frame and buoyant spirits of your father. I feel that I am approaching the grave, and I would not willingly enter its precincts until I have fulfilled my oft repeated promise of writing you the history of my life. I know that it will be an imperfect and badly written document, for my lot has been cast more in the world of action than in the realms of study; but it will at least have one merit in your eyes, that of being your father’s. When this is delivered into your hands, I shall be in the cold silent grave where praise or blame will be equally indifferent to me; I shall, therefore, conceal nothing from you; my life shall be laid open to your gaze, even as it will be (if the priest’s tale of a hereafter be correct) to the eye of the Almighty; you will see in it but little of that perfection to which man so vainly aspires; you will trace the record of many errors which you may deem excusable; but, alas! many also which you will sigh over and lament. It is for this purpose that I thus employ my few remaining days, that I may warn you from the errors I have committed, and incite you, by the added light of my experience, to follow in that path which can alone ensure permanent success. I have lived in perilous times; times in which, if I trace my age by the progress of events, I seem to have lived centuries, so pregnant with results have been the fourscore years of my life; revolution after revolution seem in breathless haste to have succeeded each other; and on looking back on the past, I start, and wonder how I could have survived such perilous times—but have I in truth survived them? How much of me has changed since the heroic and fiery days of my early manhood. Am I, indeed, the same identity whose bosom then bounded with the wilderness of Love, whose tempestuous feelings I would be satisfied with naught less than universal equality? I who cling so closely to the staid realities of life—changed as I am I will endeavour to recall the past, to embody to your conception truths that are yet strange to history, and may, perchance, for ever so remain. To you, Henry, my eldest born, the sole remembrance left me of my adored Alice, to you I commit the task of decyphering this writing, for my hand, once so firm, is now palsied by weakness; read it to your brothers in the long winter evenings when there is naught to disturb the calm serenity with which I know it will be received; if your occupations permit, make a copy of it, and send it to your sister Frances; but keep the original sacred as an heir-loom in our family. Alas! save my little farm. I gave little but this and my blessing to bequeath you. You, Henry, by disposition and by ties of soft recollection, will not, I know, leave the spot endeared to you by the last sighs and departing moments of your beloved father. John and George are more fitted to cope with the world. I have perceived that they tire of the daily monotony of a country life; if when I am gone, and they have listened to the eventful story of my life, they should still wish to embark in the great world, they have my blessing and consent; let them so act that without rashness on the one hand or cowardice on the other (I have blotted out the word cowardice—I know they have none in their veins) without weakness on the other they follow their father in, perhaps, his only virtue — Consistency, and be ever found ready to battle in the cause of emancipating opt [oft?] pressed humanity. I feel that my subject overpowers me; but Time hastes onwards its flight, and I must not, in my last days be found a laggard. I will take a stroll in my garden; it will, perchance, so far revive me that I may be able to resume. How soft and delicious is the air of this September eve, it penetrates through my frame and diffuses its calm upon my soul. I feel again capable of continuing my task, for alas! Winter will succeed to Autumn, and the returning Spring will, I feel, see you weeping over your father’s tomb. Yet why should this thought give me sadness? I fear not Death, I have faced it in many varied forms. I dread not a hereafter, it is but a poet’s dream, would that it might exist, it were preferable to annihilation; why then do I still cling to life? If my spirit tells me rightly it is because I see near to me, yea, actually approaching, that reign of Liberty and Justice for which I have so suffered, and my soul leaps to meet it.
Age hath but converted enthusiasm into passion, as my bodily faculties gradually decay, my soul seems to bathe itself in the mighty waters of the past, and recovers all the ardour, all the freshness of its early youth. Is it that I see my feelings revived again in you my children, or is it the electric influence of thy spirit of regeneration which pervades the universe, and which, as the body decays, acts more directly upon the soul! I know not, who shall penetrate these mysteries! But I feel its influence peculiarly upon me, and rejoice, like the seers and philosophers of old in the prophetic vision of the glorious future. But with an old man’s garrulity I wander from my history–yet is not this my history? Are not my latest reflections and ideas perhaps the most valuable portion of my narrative? What is life, but a continued series of actions arising from our ideas and reflections, and looking, as i do from the calm of the grave, all the false glitter and gilded bravery which youth and manhood threw over the events of my time (for my history will not only be that of life, but also of my time) vanishes away, and I see only the clear and naked facts; this is indeed history, and such shall be my history. I am impatient to commence, but my wearied fingers refuse longer to guide the pen, and my uncommenced task must be again deferred.
When you read these lines and observe the time at which they were written you will be able to account for the nervousness I have this day displayed and shall most probably continue to display, you will then connect my present emotions with my past life and it will form a new and not unpleasing page in my unwritten history. Adieu, my dear children, my eyes are weary and age craves rest as best enjoyment. I have at length concluded my introduction, and to-morrow shall resume my pen.
[Transcribed from a microfilmed copy of The People’s Paper at The Working Class Movement Library in Salford: https://www.wcml.org.uk/]