The Lit Lantern

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Jacob waited beneath the big oak tree, the rented horse tied to its trunk, shifting and neighing. He patted the brown beast, his gaze fixed to the large hunting cabin that resided at the other end of the clearing. Every day for the last four days, he’d been waiting at this spot after sunset, sometimes for hours on end. Waiting for a signal from the back porch of the cabin. Today, he’d been waiting for over an hour, despite not knowing if he would receive what he’d come to acquire.

I should be used to waiting, he reflected as he sat beside his horse. He’d waited a long time, for the love of his life; just as he’d waited to be accepted at the prestigious institution down South. As the son of a cotton weaver, he’d seen his fair share of hardships. But he’d been determined to escape it, to reach beyond what had been handed to him and strive hard to improve his lot in life. He’d pitied his folks for their limited vision. Thinking back, he knew it had been his naiveté that had made him dream of the impossible. After all, how many lads from the North had made it big in the South?

That was where he’d seen her the first time, alighting from her carriage as he walked towards his hostel. She had stolen his breath, her peach gown glinting in the sunlight to give her an air of ethereal beauty. In those days, he had been desperate to find work in the city, hoping to impress the administrators at the Southern Institute and at the same time, earning a keep in the expensive city. He’d been introduced to her as the apprentice to the Master Jeweller at the Rutherby Street; she, the daughter of an influential, noble lord. Lady Adelaide.

Over the course of the summer and fall, they had deepened their acquaintance over witty banters, shared dreams, discussions on their favourite pieces of poetry and music. She had shown him a wild side to her, previously hidden beneath the rigours of her cold society. Their love had transcended the bounds of class, region, station, norms and even bounds of propriety.

But like the harsh winter with its snow and frost, their idyllic summer romance faced the icy wrath of social disapproval. Afraid of any scandal marring the marriage prospects of his daughter, Adelaide’s father fixed a match for her, befitting her station of-course. Jacob had waited for Adelaide to convince her father, romance clouding his mind from any unfavourable outcome. Even as the months turned and the Institute remained firm in their refusal, Jacob spent his meagre inheritance to remain in the city. But his disheartened spirit soon found death and debt knocking at his door.

Returning North to bury his parents, he’d struggled to find work that matched to the dreams he’d nurtured since his youth, even as the debt surmounted. Exhausted working two jobs to support his sister as well, he’d still hoped to gain Adelaide as his wife. But the letter announcing her engagement had put paid to that. His entreaties of love, to keep her happy had only yielded half-hearted consolations and vague promises. Bitter and wizened to the reality of his circumstances, he’d snagged the offer to tie himself to the Estate owner’s daughter, when the opportunity had come knocking. Not only did he manage to reduce his debt, but gained a respectable wife. But his vow to never again meet Adelaide, had dissolved by the contents of her letter that had arrived days ago.

***

Adelaide stood on the back porch, gently rocking the bundle in her arms. She had watched the sunset from the raised platform, arms securely wrapped around her new-born daughter. Such a tiny but precious being, she was just a few days old but had become the light of her mother’s world. Adelaide had wondered, if things would have been different had she chosen to elope when Jacob had proposed the idea. But she had always envisioned a splendid marital life, attending events as society’s favourite couple. She had tried to convince her father to accept the son of a Northern weaver into their family, even implored to get him admitted to the Institute to improve his prospects. Failing which, she had travelled North to meet him; disregarding her father’s warnings.  

Setting foot in the strange Northern land had shrivelled up her courage. Love could heal and ease pains and burdens, but easing the burden of poverty was a task too heavy for the young maiden’s green love. Scared of her father’s dire misgivings ringing true, she’d placated him and turned away from the love that could never fulfil her dreams of glitz and glamour. But after accepting the arranged match, she’d faced an impending motherhood that brought out new fears. Had God punished her for her carnal sins? Or was it for turning away from love for material wealth?

It had been hard to make excuses to visit the Western towns. But she’d prevailed and accompanied by a trusted maid, had spent the last three months in her family’s Hunting Cabin in the West. She had never faced as many emotions as she had during those months. Afraid of her future, angry at herself for giving into temptation, scared of the consequences, guilty for not joyfully embracing the gift of a child, regretful of being estranged from the child’s father. Thoughts of her child’s future had plagued her. What was a young, unwed mother to do?

The birth had been excruciating, aggravated by the fact that she didn’t have an experienced mid-wife with her. Sweaty and exhausted, she’d instructed her maid to send the letter before even lifting her daughter in her arms.

Even as she stood next to the lit lantern overlooking the bushes, she doubted her decision. Wouldn’t her daughter be better off with a mother who would love her and provide all that she could ever desire? How would she live in that strange rural hinterland with a step-mother?

Galloping sounds broke her out of her reverie. Adelaide saw a dark rider alight and approach the porch. Jacob looked different in the yellow light cast by the lantern; a distinct hardness filmed over his once handsome features. His eyes were glued to the infant cradled in her arms as he stood before her. Just for a second, she thought of running away with her child; far from this selfish society of cruel men, their money and power. Why should she have to sacrifice her child to conform with the narrow views of her father and their ilk?

“What’s her name?” Jacob enquired, peering at the slumbering new-born. He stroked a finger down her soft, smooth cheek.

“I couldn’t…”, the mother trailed off, swallowing the lump in her throat. She had been afraid of getting attached, of not being able to part from her when the time came. But she had underestimated a mother’s love, having never experienced it herself. Even after his reply had arrived, she had thought of backing out of the plan. Every night she had stared at the moon, the symbol of lovers across the world and debated the course of her actions. Would her love for her daughter fizzle out like the amorous feelings for Jacob had? Could she bear the stigma and scandal after being disinherited? Struggle as a single mother? Would she be able to deal with the consequences of her action if she sent her daughter away? Was she yet again being selfish? Others may have been strong, but she knew her own faults.

“Are you sure about this?” His tone carried a hint of scepticism, reminding her of the broken promises that littered the space between them. She gave a stiff jerk, before handing the bundle over to him. He’s awkward, she judged as he tried to balance her clumsily.

“What made you change your mind today?” He had yet to glance at her even once. Adelaide crossed her arms, leaning against the railing of the platform.

“How will you explain her presence?” She asked, ignoring his question. Her daughter would be introduced as the infant child of his run-away sister, who had died shortly after giving birth. It was true, he explained, except that his nephew had been stillborn. From one’s bastard to another’s. Surprisingly, his wife had agreed to raising this child as their own. Adelaide was quick to notice the pride in his expression when he mentioned his wife.

They walked towards his horse in silence. Adelaide wanted to weep, scream and throw a fit as Jacob settled atop the beast. This was it, she realised. The last time I would ever see my firstborn. Tears streaming down her eyes, she kissed the tiny forehead before placing her into the cloth-and-rope harness fitted to his chest.

Jacob looked into her blue eyes for the last time. “The lifetime of love I’d pledged to you,” he whispered, as her heart thundered in her chest. “I’ll give it all to her, and much more.” He couldn’t give her much fortune, he knew but atleast he could give her the recognition and future that she deserved.

Adelaide strode towards the porch, unwilling to glimpse her daughter riding away forever. The lantern shined bright against the gloomy night. It had been a symbol of her deliberation, her desperation, her struggle for the last five days. Each day she had stood before it, wondering if she had the strength or cowardice to light it as a signal. Yesterday, a letter from her impatient father, demanding her presence had pushed her towards her decision. Now it was a sign of her farewell, of her love that would remain a secret, of her regret and repentance of abandoning an innocent. Gazing at the yellow light, she wondered if any lamp could ever lighten the darkness of her mind. She went inside without extinguishing it.

That night, the lit lantern stood testimony to love in all its forms- complete and incomplete; great and small; burning and flickering.


This story was written in response to Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge #71. Thanks for this challenge!

© 2020, Cozy Quiet Corner.

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