Had I not been there, no account, no print, no evidence of witnesses could have made me believe what I saw that day.
I had arrived at the Durwards' home only the evening before, and on the morrow there was enough uneasiness reported for Mr. Durward to feel obliged to go early to his printworks. His elder daughter, Miss Durward, was absent, and as the morning wore on, his younger daughter, Mrs. Greenshaw, could no longer disguise her anxiety for her sister. She set ever more stitches awry, and even wondered aloud if she ought to send for her son, Tom, to be fetched home from his favorite playground in the woods. In such a case I would always have offered my services to find and escort Miss Durward home. But I should mention that Mrs. Greenshaw was the young widow whose affections, though we all cloaked the fact in other words, I had come into Lancashire to engage.
My offer was greeted with relief and gratitude, and I received my orders: I must seek Miss Durward in the town, at the house of her old nurse Mrs. Heelis, which was in Dickinson Street, hard by St. Peter's Field, where the meeting which was the cause of so much unease was to take place. It was rumored that the magistrates were even now mustering the militia to disband the meeting. In the town, every shop that I could see was boarded up, every window shuttered, and while we were yet some distance away, my hack was brought to a halt by the absolute solidity of the crowd all about us. I paid it off and made my way on foot through the hot streets, assisted by the movement of the mass, which was almost as steady as I was accustomed to observe in the Peninsula, though rather more motley, and very much more good-tempered. As we arrived on open ground not far from Dickinson Street the crowd became still more tightly packed. I abandoned any notion of making directly for my goal, and began to work my way round the edges of the throng. Shirtsleeves and leather aprons and petticoats and Sunday-best pinafores may not easily be counted by company or regiment, but trumpets and drums there were aplenty, and flags, or rather banners, borne aloft in the heat-hazed air with every bit as much pride as that of a color-sergeant of the Guards. I was astounded too to see blood-red, tin caps of liberty bobbing on poles above my head. True, these ironworkers and cotton-spinners were perhaps not bred of the same stock as my slow-spoken, country people at Kersey, but I could scarcely credit that any Englishman would willingly bear so infamous a sign of revolution and foreign tyranny.
The distance I had already walked, and my slow progress in the crowd, had inevitably made my leg ache, and despite my stick, I stumbled in trying to get between human bodies and iron railings. The roar of cheers and cries and the crash of music in my ears was solid and unwavering, like the haze of sweat and sooty dust through which we all moved. Over the caps and hats and beavers I could just make out a little group—ladies as well as men—standing on what seemed to be two hay carts lashed together to form a platform. One man appeared to be making a speech, though only a few could possibly have made out his meaning, and the rest began to push and mutter in their impatience.
And then from my left—the southwest—I heard cavalry, charging. On they came, all order lost before ever they reached the open ground, their sabers out, cutting at whatever man, woman, or child was within range. Some of the people tried to flee; others stood their ground. I saw a special constable go down to a cavalryman who, through the dust, took his truncheon to be a cudgel. At my elbow a lad fell, blood all over his face, and I caught at the bridle of the militiaman that did it.
"For shame, sir!" I cried. "Won't you give them time to get away? Don't you see them down?"
He looked at me, but I was not in uniform, no longer commissioned, and he wrenched his horse's head out of my grasp.
"It's Billy Kirby!" cried a girl's voice. "Billy, it's us! You'll not hurt ye marrahs!" But the rider could not or would not rein in, and the girl went down beneath his hoofs.
I started forward, but was knocked aside by a huge man clad as a blacksmith and intent on wrenching the iron railings behind me from the ground. Even after several years I am not as nimble as a man with two legs of his own. I fell heavily, and in the time it took me to right myself the yeoman cavalry had hacked and slashed their way across the field under a hail of stones, bricks, and iron bars. At my feet lay a woman, her hands pressed to her breast from where blood oozed between her fingers, her moans feeble from the extremity of her suffering. Even as I looked round to seek help for her in the hurrying, scrambling crowd, her moans ceased. I knelt down beside her as quickly as I might, but she was as dead as any of my men in the breach at Badajoz.
The crowd was slackening a little. On the far side of the field I could make out a company of the Fifteenth Hussars picking their way among the fallen and using the flat of their sabers to hasten the remains of the great gathering back to the courts and mills and villages whence they had come. The people went, stumbling with fear, or with the dull, hunched walk of prisoners of war, dragging their wounded with them. Only a few foolhardy lads turned to fling a final, defiant stone.The Mathematics of Love
Excerpted from The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin
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