I AM the native of a sea-surrounded nook. Somehow this cloudy, inconsiderable speck we call England manages to eclipse far larger nations. It reminds me that the human mind is the creator of all that is great, and that nature is nothing more than a trusted servant.
In my childhood, England was the universe to me. Plains and mountains stretched to the limits of my vision, speckled by the dwellings of my compatriots. To me, like many of my fellow citizens, this was the Earth’s very centre. The rest of the world was simply a fable, out of mind and easily forgotten.
My fortunes are an example of the power that destiny possesses over a life. My father had the envied gifts of wit and imagination, yet left his life to be guided by the winds, without reason or judgment. His background was obscure, with a meager inheritance spent on luxury so that he might become an actor in high-society. During his careless youth, he was adored by the wealthy, and even a youthful sovereign, who escaped from the arduous duties of kingly business to find constant amusement and exhilaration in my father’s company.
My father’s gambling impulses perpetually led him into difficulties from which only his cleverness could release him. His accumulating pile of debts would have broken any other man, but he had a light spirit. With his company desired at the tables of the rich, his negligence seemed forgivable, which only served to further boost his ego, and ultimately, his reckless ways.
This kind of popularity, like any other, is fleeting. His problems seemed to become increasingly difficult. During these times the king, out of affection, would come to his aide, and then gently reprimand him. My father always promised to make amends, but his craving for admiration, and an obsession with gambling, made his promises empty, and meaningless.
Despite his temperament, my father did have a peculiar sensibility, and he knew that his influence in the brilliant circle of society would eventually fade. The king married Katharina, a scornful princess of Austria, who as queen of England, looked upon my father with contempt. Feeling that his fall from grace was near, he attempted to profit from his position in society one last time.
While he was truly a good man, the king was easily led, and had become a willing disciple of his new queen. He was made to look with extreme distaste on my father’s foolishness. When they were together my father’s warm-hearted nature was irresistible: but when they were apart, reminders of his failings were planted into the king’s ear, and my father began to lose his influence. The queen would constantly work to keep them apart, always presenting new accusations. The king finally decided that he would give his friend one last chance to redeem himself, or cast him off forever.
The king implored his friend to give up his ways, and to use his talents on a worthy cause, which he would gladly support. My father then realized that he would do well to exchange his present pursuits for nobler duties. He gave the king a sincere promise, and in turn received a sum of money to pay his debts, and begin a new phase of his life. Sadly, that very night he turned to the gambling table for what he thought would be the last time, and in short order lost a considerable sum.
Attempting to recover his initial losses, my father doubled the stakes, and in losing incurred a debt he could never hope to repay. Too ashamed to ask the king for help once again, he turned his back on the elite of London, and with poverty as his sole companion, he buried himself in solitude among the hills and lakes of Cumberland. Although he seemed to vanish without a trace, his wit, fascinating manners, and entertaining nature were long remembered and repeated from mouth to mouth. If you had asked where this companion of the noble had gone, you would simply hear that he was a lost man; the high-society that once adored him did not think to find him and offer help. The king lamented his absence; he loved to repeat his sayings, tell of their adventures together, and praise his talents – but his reminiscence would end there.
Meanwhile my father, although forgotten, could not forget his past life. The loss of luxury, pleasure, and admiration was devastating to him. He soon fell ill and was left to be nursed by the daughter of a poor cottager, whose roof he lived under. She was lovely, gentle, and, above all else, kind to him. Although he had fallen out of favour with the elite, he was still remarkable to this lowly cottage-girl. This led to an ill-fated marriage, of which my younger sister and I were the offspring.
Despite the tenderness of my mother, her husband still despised his mundane life. Unaccustomed to work, he did not know how to support his family. Illness would strike once again, leaving him depressed, and unable to help my mother with even the simplest of tasks. Sometimes he thought of asking the king for help, but pride and shame stopped him. Before the situation became grave enough for him to finally seek out his old friend, he died. Shortly before this catastrophe, he imagined the desolate situation in which his wife and children would be left. His last effort was a letter to the king, full of touching eloquence, and of occasional flashes of that brilliant spirit which was an integral part of him. He committed his widow and orphans to the friendship of his royal master, and felt that their prosperity was better assured in his death than in his life. This letter was entrusted to a nobleman, whom he would charge with the duty of placing it in the king’s own hand.
My father died in debt, and what little property he had was immediately seized by his creditors. My mother, penniless and burdened with two young children, waited week after week, and month after month, in sickening expectation of a reply which never came. During my father’s life, she had become familiar with the name of royalty and the courtly circle; but knowing only of life in her cottage, such things appeared to be vague and fantastical to her. If she could have found the courage to address the noble persons mentioned by her husband, how could she succeed where he had failed? She saw no escape from her sad existence of want and misery. Left destitute and with no family – her father had died years before – we became outcasts, treated worse than the poorest of the poor.
I was five years old when my mother finally died of disease and misery. Memories of my mother imparting upon me knowledge of my father’s friends, in the hope that one day I might benefit, floated like an ethereal dream through my brain. I felt different, superior to my companions, because of these wondrous tales, although simply hearing the name of the king or his nobility caused me deep pain. My earliest memories are as an orphan among the valleys of Cumberland where I was in the service of a farmer as a shepherd. Such a life was not easy and its pains far exceeded its pleasures. There was freedom in it, a reckless loneliness; but as romantic as this was, it did not fulfill the desires of action and human connection that youth crave. Caring for my flock was not enough to tame my eager spirit; my free time was filled with temptations that led me into lawlessness. I found others like myself and formed them into a crew, where I was their chief and captain. Our flocks spread over the pastures unattended, while we schemed and executed mischievous pranks, making enemies out of the locals. I was the leader and protector of my comrades. While I endured punishment and pain in their defence, I also earned their praise and obedience as a hero.
My disposition became rugged, but firm; I inherited my father’s appetite for admiration and lack of self-control, making me daring and reckless. I was rough like the elements, becoming like the animals I tended. I persuaded myself that it was in power only that I was inferior to the monarchs of the Earth. Uneducated and pursued by a restless feeling of being denied my true station in society, I wandered among the hills of civilized England as savagely as the wolf founders of ancient Rome. My only law was the rule of the strongest, and my greatest virtue was that I would never submit.
As my mother lay dying, she entrusted me with the care of my sister. This is the one duty that I could never neglect. My sister was three years younger and the object of my careful love. Orphans in every sense of the word, we were despised even among the unhonoured. While my determination gave me courage, my sister’s character was delicate, making our lowly station that much more difficult for her.
Like me, she inherited our father’s personality. Her face was all expression; her eyes were not dark, but impenetrably deep with their intellectual glance, a true reflection of the soul. Her golden hair contrasted her pale complexion. She truly had heaven in both her heart and her look.
Although she was lovely and full of noble feeling, my poor Perdita (a fanciful name my sister had received from her dying father), was not altogether pious. If she had been nurtured, she might have been different; but unloved and neglected, she repaid kindness with distrust and silence. She expected hostility from everyone around her, and reacted accordingly. She wandered to the most desolate places in order to find loneliness. Often she passed whole hours walking up and down the paths of the woods, sitting beside a stream, creating fantasy worlds for herself, and only returning to the dullness of her common life when absolutely necessary.
Poverty was a cloud that veiled her best qualities, and all that was good in her seemed to perish from a lack of affection. Unlike me, Perdita could not remember our parents; she clung to me as her only true friend, but her affection for a scoundrel did nothing to help her gain favour from others. Had she been born into a better family, she would have been the object of adoration. She was an intelligent girl and envy or cruelty were not in her nature; when she was happy her expression might have been that of a queen; her eyes were bright; her look fearless.
Despite our bond, my sister and I are stark contrasts to each other. Notwithstanding my lawless habits, I was quite sociable, while she was a recluse. I always seek companionship and applause, while Perdita willingly closes herself off from this world. My life was spent among tangible realities; hers was a dream. It could be said that I loved my enemies, as their antagonism fueled me; Perdita almost disliked her friends, for they interfered with her day dreaming. All my feelings, my small triumphs, became bitter if I could not share them; Perdita, even in joy, fled to loneliness, and could go entire days without seeking companionship. She could love and dwell on the tenderness in her heart, while her demeanour expressed the coldest reserve. She never spoke until she was absolutely certain of the analysis carried out in her own mind.
She came to dwell in a cottage near the waters of the lake of Ulswater surrounded by the woods. I lived with a farmer whose house was built among the hills: a dark crag rose behind it, and facing the north, the snow lay in its crevices even during summer. Before dawn I led my flock on walks, guarding them during the day. It was a life of toil where rain and cold were more frequent than sunshine. My trusty dog watched the sheep as I slipped away to find my comrades, where we would go on with our schemes. At noon we built our fire and cooked game stolen from the neighbouring reserves. After our meal came the tales of daring escapes, combats with dogs, and flight from would be captors. Our afternoons were filled with searching for stray lambs and eluding punishment for our misdeeds. After a long day of working in the fields, my flock went to its fold, and I to my sister.
My companions and I rarely escaped our mischief scot free. Our stolen game often meant harsh blows and imprisonment. At the age of thirteen I spent a month in the county jail, and left with my morals unimproved. My hatred to my oppressors had increased tenfold. Bread and water could not tame my blood, solitary confinement could not inspire tranquility. I was angry, impatient and miserable. My only happiness was in scheming my revenge which I perfected in my forced solitude. When I was freed early in September, I never failed to provide for myself and my comrades. A harsh winter full of sharp frost and heavy snows tamed the animals, while keeping farmers by their firesides. Their laziness meant we got more game than we could eat, and our bravado only increased.
The passing years only added a fresh love of freedom, and contempt for all that was not wild and untamed. At the age of sixteen I had the appearance of a full grown man, tall and athletic. My body had been shaped by the harshness of the elements. My skin was tanned by the sun; my step was firm with conscious power. I feared no man, and loved no one apart from Perdita. Looking back, I now see how utterly worthless I would have become if I had pursued this reckless path. My life was like that of an animal, and my mind was in danger of degenerating into that of a savage. My days consisted of crime and anarchy. I stood on the brink of manhood; passions, strong as the trees of a forest, had already taken root within me, and were about to overshadow the path of my life.
I lusted for ventures beyond my childish exploits, and I became infatuated with dreams of my future. I avoided my old comrades, and soon lost contact with them. While they fulfilled their stations in life, I paused. With no one to lead or drive me forward, I became an outcast. The old began to point at me like a criminal, the young made me feel like a leper. I hated them, and soon began to hate myself. I clung to my ferocious habits, even though I despised them. I continued my war against civilization, all the while wanting to belong to it.
During this time I still remembered my mother telling me of my father’s former life. I examined the few relics I possessed belonging to him, which hinted of a greater life than could be found among the mountain cottages. My father had been connected with nobles, but subsequently had been an outcast. The name of the king – to whom my dying father had addressed his last prayers, only to have them ignored – was associated only with malice and resentment in my mind. I knew that I was born for something greater. But greatness, at least to my distorted perceptions, was not necessarily goodness, and my wild thoughts were unchecked by moral considerations.
Thus I stood upon a precipice of evil, ready to throw myself in – until a stronger influence came over my fortunes, changing their course forever.