Charles Dickens >> The Pickwick Papers (page 13)

'They were poor--they could not be otherwise when the manpursued such courses; but the woman's unceasing andunwearied exertions, early and late, morning, noon, and night, keptthem above actual want. These exertions were but ill repaid.People who passed the spot in the evening--sometimes at a latehour of the night--reported that they had heard the moans andsobs of a woman in distress, and the sound of blows; and morethan once, when it was past midnight, the boy knocked softly atthe door of a neighbour's house, whither he had been sent, toescape the drunken fury of his unnatural father.

'During the whole of this time, and when the poor creatureoften bore about her marks of ill-usage and violence which shecould not wholly conceal, she was a constant attendant at ourlittle church. Regularly every Sunday, morning and afternoon, sheoccupied the same seat with the boy at her side; and though theywere both poorly dressed--much more so than many of theirneighbours who were in a lower station--they were always neatand clean. Every one had a friendly nod and a kind word for"poor Mrs. Edmunds"; and sometimes, when she stopped toexchange a few words with a neighbour at the conclusion of theservice in the little row of elm-trees which leads to the churchporch, or lingered behind to gaze with a mother's pride andfondness upon her healthy boy, as he sported before her withsome little companions, her careworn face would lighten up withan expression of heartfelt gratitude; and she would look, if notcheerful and happy, at least tranquil and contented.

'Five or six years passed away; the boy had become a robustand well-grown youth. The time that had strengthened the child'sslight frame and knit his weak limbs into the strength of manhoodhad bowed his mother's form, and enfeebled her steps;but the arm that should have supported her was no longer lockedin hers; the face that should have cheered her, no more lookedupon her own. She occupied her old seat, but there was a vacantone beside her. The Bible was kept as carefully as ever, the placeswere found and folded down as they used to be: but there was noone to read it with her; and the tears fell thick and fast upon thebook, and blotted the words from her eyes. Neighbours were askind as they were wont to be of old, but she shunned theirgreetings with averted head. There was no lingering among theold elm-trees now-no cheering anticipations of happiness yet instore. The desolate woman drew her bonnet closer over her face,and walked hurriedly away.

'Shall I tell you that the young man, who, looking back to theearliest of his childhood's days to which memory and consciousnessextended, and carrying his recollection down to that moment,could remember nothing which was not in some way connectedwith a long series of voluntary privations suffered by his motherfor his sake, with ill-usage, and insult, and violence, and allendured for him--shall I tell you, that he, with a recklessdisregard for her breaking heart, and a sullen, wilful forgetfulness ofall she had done and borne for him, had linked himself withdepraved and abandoned men, and was madly pursuing aheadlong career, which must bring death to him, and shame toher? Alas for human nature! You have anticipated it long since.

'The measure of the unhappy woman's misery and misfortunewas about to be completed. Numerous offences had beencommitted in the neighbourhood; the perpetrators remainedundiscovered, and their boldness increased. A robbery of a daringand aggravated nature occasioned a vigilance of pursuit, and astrictness of search, they had not calculated on. Young Edmundswas suspected, with three companions. He was apprehended--committed--tried--condemned--to die.'The wild and piercing shriek from a woman's voice, whichresounded through the court when the solemn sentence waspronounced, rings in my ears at this moment. That cry struck aterror to the culprit's heart, which trial, condemnation--theapproach of death itself, had failed to awaken. The lips whichhad been compressed in dogged sullenness throughout, quiveredand parted involuntarily; the face turned ashy pale as the coldperspiration broke forth from every pore; the sturdy limbs of thefelon trembled, and he staggered in the dock.

'In the first transports of her mental anguish, the sufferingmother threw herself on her knees at my feet, and ferventlysought the Almighty Being who had hitherto supported her inall her troubles to release her from a world of woe and misery,and to spare the life of her only child. A burst of grief, and aviolent struggle, such as I hope I may never have to witnessagain, succeeded. I knew that her heart was breaking fromthat hour; but I never once heard complaint or murmur escapeher lips.'It was a piteous spectacle to see that woman in the prison-yardfrom day to day, eagerly and fervently attempting, by affectionand entreaty, to soften the hard heart of her obdurate son. It wasin vain. He remained moody, obstinate, and unmoved. Not eventhe unlooked-for commutation of his sentence to transportationfor fourteen years, softened for an instant the sullen hardihoodof his demeanour.

'But the spirit of resignation and endurance that had so longupheld her, was unable to contend against bodily weakness andinfirmity. She fell sick. She dragged her tottering limbs from thebed to visit her son once more, but her strength failed her, andshe sank powerless on the ground.

'And now the boasted coldness and indifference of the youngman were tested indeed; and the retribution that fell heavily uponhim nearly drove him mad. A day passed away and his motherwas not there; another flew by, and she came not near him; athird evening arrived, and yet he had not seen her--, and in four-and-twenty hours he was to be separated from her, perhaps forever. Oh! how the long-forgotten thoughts of former days rushedupon his mind, as he almost ran up and down the narrow yard--as if intelligence would arrive the sooner for his hurrying--andhow bitterly a sense of his helplessness and desolation rushedupon him, when he heard the truth! His mother, the only parenthe had ever known, lay ill--it might be, dying--within one mileof the ground he stood on; were he free and unfettered, a fewminutes would place him by her side. He rushed to the gate, andgrasping the iron rails with the energy of desperation, shook ittill it rang again, and threw himself against the thick wall as if toforce a passage through the stone; but the strong buildingmocked his feeble efforts, and he beat his hands together andwept like a child.

'I bore the mother's forgiveness and blessing to her son inprison; and I carried the solemn assurance of repentance, and hisfervent supplication for pardon, to her sick-bed. I heard, withpity and compassion, the repentant man devise a thousand littleplans for her comfort and support when he returned; but I knewthat many months before he could reach his place of destination,his mother would be no longer of this world.'He was removed by night. A few weeks afterwards the poorwoman's soul took its flight, I confidently hope, and solemnlybelieve, to a place of eternal happiness and rest. I performed theburial service over her remains. She lies in our little churchyard.There is no stone at her grave's head. Her sorrows were known toman; her virtues to God.'it had been arranged previously to the convict's departure,that he should write to his mother as soon as he could obtainpermission, and that the letter should be addressed to me. Thefather had positively refused to see his son from the moment ofhis apprehension; and it was a matter of indifference to himwhether he lived or died. Many years passed over without anyintelligence of him; and when more than half his term oftransportation had expired, and I had received no letter, I concludedhim to be dead, as, indeed, I almost hoped he might be.

'Edmunds, however, had been sent a considerable distance upthe country on his arrival at the settlement; and to this circumstance,perhaps, may be attributed the fact, that though severalletters were despatched, none of them ever reached my hands.He remained in the same place during the whole fourteen years.At the expiration of the term, steadily adhering to his oldresolution and the pledge he gave his mother, he made his wayback to England amidst innumerable difficulties, and returned,on foot, to his native place.

'On a fine Sunday evening, in the month of August, JohnEdmunds set foot in the village he had left with shame anddisgrace seventeen years before. His nearest way lay through thechurchyard. The man's heart swelled as he crossed the stile. Thetall old elms, through whose branches the declining sun cast hereand there a rich ray of light upon the shady part, awakened theassociations of his earliest days. He pictured himself as he wasthen, clinging to his mother's hand, and walking peacefully tochurch. He remembered how he used to look up into her paleface; and how her eyes would sometimes fill with tears as shegazed upon his features--tears which fell hot upon his foreheadas she stooped to kiss him, and made him weep too, although helittle knew then what bitter tears hers were. He thought howoften he had run merrily down that path with some childishplayfellow, looking back, ever and again, to catch his mother'ssmile, or hear her gentle voice; and then a veil seemed lifted fromhis memory, and words of kindness unrequited, and warningsdespised, and promises broken, thronged upon his recollectiontill his heart failed him, and he could bear it no longer.'He entered the church. The evening service was concluded andthe congregation had dispersed, but it was not yet closed. Hissteps echoed through the low building with a hollow sound, andhe almost feared to be alone, it was so still and quiet. He lookedround him. Nothing was changed. The place seemed smaller thanit used to be; but there were the old monuments on which he hadgazed with childish awe a thousand times; the little pulpit withits faded cushion; the Communion table before which he had sooften repeated the Commandments he had reverenced as a child,and forgotten as a man. He approached the old seat; it lookedcold and desolate. The cushion had been removed, and the Biblewas not there. Perhaps his mother now occupied a poorer seat, orpossibly she had grown infirm and could not reach the churchalone. He dared not think of what he feared. A cold feeling creptover him, and he trembled violently as he turned away.'An old man entered the porch just as he reached it. Edmundsstarted back, for he knew him well; many a time he had watchedhim digging graves in the churchyard. What would he say to thereturned convict?

'The old man raised his eyes to the stranger's face, bade him"good-evening," and walked slowly on. He had forgotten him.

'He walked down the hill, and through the village. The weatherwas warm, and the people were sitting at their doors, or strollingin their little gardens as he passed, enjoying the serenity of theevening, and their rest from labour. Many a look was turnedtowards him, and many a doubtful glance he cast on either sideto see whether any knew and shunned him. There were strangefaces in almost every house; in some he recognised the burly formof some old schoolfellow--a boy when he last saw him--surroundedby a troop of merry children; in others he saw, seated inan easy-chair at a cottage door, a feeble and infirm old man,whom he only remembered as a hale and hearty labourer; butthey had all forgotten him, and he passed on unknown.

'The last soft light of the setting sun had fallen on the earth,casting a rich glow on the yellow corn sheaves, and lengtheningthe shadows of the orchard trees, as he stood before the old house--the home of his infancy--to which his heart had yearned withan intensity of affection not to be described, through long andweary years of captivity and sorrow. The paling was low, thoughhe well remembered the time that it had seemed a high wall tohim; and he looked over into the old garden. There were moreseeds and gayer flowers than there used to be, but there were theold trees still--the very tree under which he had lain a thousandtimes when tired of playing in the sun, and felt the soft, mild sleepof happy boyhood steal gently upon him. There were voiceswithin the house. He listened, but they fell strangely upon his ear;he knew them not. They were merry too; and he well knew thathis poor old mother could not be cheerful, and he away. The dooropened, and a group of little children bounded out, shouting andromping. The father, with a little boy in his arms, appeared at thedoor, and they crowded round him, clapping their tiny hands,and dragging him out, to join their joyous sports. The convictthought on the many times he had shrunk from his father's sightin that very place. He remembered how often he had buried histrembling head beneath the bedclothes, and heard the harsh word,and the hard stripe, and his mother's wailing; and though theman sobbed aloud with agony of mind as he left the spot, his fistwas clenched, and his teeth were set, in a fierce and deadly passion.

'And such was the return to which he had looked through theweary perspective of many years, and for which he had undergoneso much suffering! No face of welcome, no look of forgiveness,no house to receive, no hand to help him--and this too in the oldvillage. What was his loneliness in the wild, thick woods, whereman was never seen, to this!

'He felt that in the distant land of his bondage and infamy, hehad thought of his native place as it was when he left it; and notas it would be when he returned. The sad reality struck coldly athis heart, and his spirit sank within him. He had not courage tomake inquiries, or to present himself to the only person who waslikely to receive him with kindness and compassion. He walkedslowly on; and shunning the roadside like a guilty man, turnedinto a meadow he well remembered; and covering his face withhis hands, threw himself upon the grass.

'He had not observed that a man was lying on the bank besidehim; his garments rustled as he turned round to steal a look atthe new-comer; and Edmunds raised his head.

'The man had moved into a sitting posture. His body was muchbent, and his face was wrinkled and yellow. His dress denotedhim an inmate of the workhouse: he had the appearance of beingvery old, but it looked more the effect of dissipation or disease,than the length of years. He was staring hard at the stranger, andthough his eyes were lustreless and heavy at first, they appearedto glow with an unnatural and alarmed expression after they hadbeen fixed upon him for a short time, until they seemed to bestarting from their sockets. Edmunds gradually raised himself tohis knees, and looked more and more earnestly on the old man'sface. They gazed upon each other in silence.

Title: The Pickwick Papers
Author: Charles Dickens
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