The Lamplighter – 1838 – a short story
This was published in 1838 and was included in Reprinted Pieces.
The lamplighters are meeting and dicussing a variety of thiings. We are advised that lamplighters are strange, who hand down ceremonies and customs from father to son. They consider that civilisation began with the ‘first street-light maintained at the public expense’.
They talk of Tom Grig, his family all lamplighters. Not the women, because emancipation was some way off. They talk of the remorselss breaking up of their profession, the oil and cotton trade, and discuss the lack of compensation. They talked of lamplighters’ funerals.
Tom Grig had spoken a funeral oration at the watch-house and been fined for over-drinking. Tom moved to a new patch, the speaker thought at Canonbury Tower in Islington.
One tells of Tom up his ladder and spotting a gentleman using a telescope to watch him. The gentleman called out and they discussed his astronomic activities. He declared that his investigations predicted that a stranger would present himself as the clock struck five. That this person would marry his niece, He went on to say the person would have a birth enveloped in mystery. Tom confessed that there was doubt about his father.
The gentleman rushes from the house, shakes Tom down his ladder and embraces him. He asks if he had encountered whisperings of greatness, and Tom confessed he did.
He suggests they meet his niece,Tom questioning is she is good looking, the gentleman confirms she is, though his description suggests to Tom that she has a game eye.
He says she has five thousand pounds, but that is irrelevant because the gentleman had almost found the philosopher’s stone, which could turn anything to gold,
Somewhat credulous, Tom asks for food to confirm he was awake. The gentleman takes Tom into the parlour where two beautiful girls sit with a waiting-woman and a tall thin boy-man, Galileo Isaac Newton Flamstead, who he refers to as the Salamander.
The niece was identified as Miss Fanny Barker, so Tom introduces himself and kisses her. Fanny colours up and asks her uncle whether he had made a mistake, perhaps the comet had interfered to create an error.
The gentleamn takes him to an outhouse, which bizarrely has a jar containing a three-headed man, who the gentleman says he uses in his astrology. He disppears up a ladder to the observatory and tells Tom to wait.
The gentleamn eventually returns with Mooney, a rather strange creature who was helping him. Mooney announces that they needed to prepare Tom, because he will ‘expire at exactly thirty-five minutes, twenty-seven seconds, and five-sixths of a second past nine o’clock’, two months from tomorrow.
Therefore the old gentleman wanted the marriage to happen rapidly because Tom had to trasmit his distinguished race for posterity, The two young ladies burst in and kneel in front of Tom and Mooney. Tom points out that the girls are before the wrong partner. But the young ladies insist that the choices are theirs, that they detest their selected partners. Mooney threatens to leave.
The crucible that is to deliver the philosopher’s stone blows up, and the old gentleman considers the task will take another fifteen years to complete. In the changed circumstamces Tom’s ‘affianced’ points out that the old gentleman had in fact seen Flamstead when the clock struck five, and declares herself happy to marry him.
Tom agrees to marry the waiting-maid, he only has two months to live. But then the old gentleman confesses that he made a mistake on Tom’s longevity calculation, he will live to 87 years old! Tom suggests the waiting-maid should therefore look to the butcher for a husband.
The old gentleman wets his finger in the crucible’s liquid and describes a triangle on Tom’s head, the room swims and he found himself backin the watch-house.
He spent the night at the watch-house and so appeared at the magistrate’s corner in the morning to face another fine. Tom’s claim thast he had been enchanted was dismissed. But, as he said, why would he make up a story like this one?
Flamstead, Galileo Isaac Newton (the Salamander)