THE FELON'S REVERIE.
In a narrow cell sat one who was a prisoner for life. Around him were
the four dingy walls, covered with great black characters, scratched
thereon at sundry times with bits of charcoal: but there was no
pleasure in reading these hieroglyphics, for they were the fruit of
solitude and melancholy, whose heavy, heavy thoughts had thus expressed
themselves. High up was placed the little window, the only connection
with life, with nature, and with the heavens; but the black iron bars
kept watch over that, and obscured the clear daylight. The links of his
chain, round his hand and his foot, kept the prisoner bound in his
dreary cage, but they could not fetter the soul's deep longing after
Days and years had passed in this gloomy cell. A charming, fresh
summer's morning it was, when the door of this prison was first closed
on him, and when he was told that Death alone should set him free. Here
he had remained ever since; severed from the rest of mankind, shut up
from them as if he had been a wild beast; and their farewell words to
him had been--that Death alone was to be his deliverer. This was so
dreadful a thought that he did all he could to drive it away. He worked
diligently, he whistled, he sang, and he engraved strange names and
figures on the walls. He frequently gazed up at the window, though he
could only see through it a dead wall, but over that wall were the blue
skies. He soon came to know every stone in the wall; he knew where the
sun cast its streaks of light: where the little streams of water
trickled down when it rained; there was more variety in the sky--it
seemed to have compassion upon him, for sometimes the clouds were
chased along by the wind; sometimes they assumed strange, fantastic
shapes, and arrayed themselves in crimson and gold, like the gorgeous
garb of royalty; and sometimes they hung in heavy, dark masses over the
lofty wall--the boundary of his external world. But he saw no living
things; and once, when a daring swallow rested for a few minutes on the
outside ledge of his iron-barred window, he scarcely breathed, in his
anxiety to enjoy the sight of it as long as possible.
Winter was his saddest time, for then the snow blocked up his
little window, and intervened between him and the skies; then, too, it
became so early dark, and daylight was so long of coming. He sang and
whistled no longer; he worked, indeed, but not so diligently, for his
tormentor--thought--had more power over him. During the short day he
could partly escape it; but when it became dark--oh! what had it not
then to recall to him! And the worst was, he was obliged to bear it
all. He could have silenced another, but he could not hush the voice
that spoke within himself. In vain he sought to banish remembrance; it
would haunt him: so he dropped his head upon his hands, and listened.
And it spoke to him of the time when he was a little boy with rosy
cheeks, who had never done harm to a living being, and who sat or lay
in the bright sunshine, humming the song his mother had taught him. And
that mother, who loved him so dearly, who worked for him during the
day, and slept with him at night--well! She was dead, God be praised!
'Perhaps if she had lived,' said he to himself. No, no! Does he not
remember well one day, when the little boy with rosy cheeks was coming
from school, that he passed a blind old man who was begging, and
holding out his hat in his hand, that he dived quickly into the hat,
and caught up the pence some charitable persons had placed in it? No
one saw him--no one knew that he had done this--why does he now
remember it with such bitter regret?
His mother died, and a neighbouring family received the orphan kindly;
consoled and caressed him, and he slept by the side of their dog. But
they were very poor themselves, and could not maintain him long;
therefore he was sent to other people, where some one paid a small
board for him, and where he, the little stranger, was far from being
well treated. He had too little to eat--and he stole food; therefore he
was ignominiously turned away, and he fell among wicked people. They
talked to him of the paths of virtue--but they followed vicious courses
themselves, and he laughed at their admonitions. He grew older, and he
went to be confirmed in the House of God; and there he was admitted
to the Holy Sacrament. The priest laid his hand with blessings on his
head, and he there pledged his heart to God, and vowed to forsake all
sin. How comes it that he now so distinctly remembers the solemn tones
of the organ as he was leaving the church, and the large painting of
the Saviour close by the altar, which he had turned to look at once
more before he passed from the crowded aisle? He had never been in that
church again to pray--alas! never.
He had, indeed, been there again--but it was on another and a reprobate
errand--and then he was young at that time, and reflected less. Ah!
then, too, he thought more of the young and beautiful girl who had
knelt next to him at the altar, and with whom he had afterwards taken a
quiet walk. On other evenings he was wont to spend his time with some
wild, bad companions, and to join in their giddy mirth and mischievous
sports; but that evening, their company wearied and disgusted him, and
he followed the young girl to her father's house. He had now become an
apprentice: but he was careless and idle: to sit hard at work did not
suit his taste. And yet these were pleasant days when he looked back on
He became a journeyman, and was betrothed to his pretty friend of the
Confirmation-day. She had gone into service, and was a hard-working,
honest, well-principled girl; he continued to be idle. Often and
often she entreated him to be more industrious, to seek work, and not
to waste his time on riot and strife; and often he promised to reform.
But his only reformation was, that he took more pains to conceal from
her his bad habits. When he was sitting with her, and her anxious look
rested upon his dull eyes, or his faded cheek, he felt that it was time
to stop in his career of evil, and resolved to become a steady and
respectable workman. But these good resolutions vanished when he left
her presence. At length the evil spirit within him conquered; he wanted
money, and stole a watch from a fellow-workman. Then the arm of the law
seized him, never again to let him go.
After he had undergone the punishment awarded to his theft, he came,
abashed and with downcast eyes, to his betrothed; but she had heard of
his guilt. With bitter tears she reproached him for his conduct, and
she forbade him ever again to show himself in her presence. He was
furious at her reception of him, and left her, vowing to be revenged.
Many wild schemes rushed through his brain:--now he determined to
murder her; now, that she should also be dragged into disgrace. But one
day he met her in the street, and her pale, tearful, melancholy
countenance disarmed his wrath, and annihilated his plans of revenge.
And now, as the prisoner scrawls absently with that rusty nail on the
wall, and his sunken eyes fill with warm tears, what is memory
recalling to his saddened mind? Ah! is it not that short-lived time of
early affection--is it not those sweet, calm features--those speaking
eyes--that love, so true and so pure? Perhaps his fancy paints himself
as an honest, industrious citizen, as a happy husband and father,
with her by his side, and in a very different place from that dreary
cell--in a comfortable home, enjoying all that he so madly threw
away--love, happiness and respectability! But his thoughts wander on;
he throws the nail away from him, and leans back, with arms folded
across his chest.
He left the town and went into the country. There was a voice in his
soul which urged him to reform. 'Return, return!' it said; 'return, for
there is yet time!' But another voice also spoke--that of the demon
which enslaved him; and that demon was--THE HABIT OF IDLENESS.
Unhappily he then fell in with a depraved wretch--a villain experienced
in crime--an escaped convict. They wandered about among the peasantry
and begged; but every door was closed against his companion, with
unmistakable signs of terror and distrust.
One summer night they had taken shelter in a stable, and he had fallen
fast asleep. He was awakened by his comrade. 'Get up,' said he, 'men
will give us nothing--the Lord must help us, therefore.' He thought the
man alluded to some intended theft, and accompanied him without the
least reluctance. They stole along the gardens and fences on towards
the churchyard. He stopped his guide.
'What are we to do here? 'he asked, with uneasiness. 'You surely will
'What?' asked the other, laughing.
'Oh, let the dead rest in peace!'
'Fool!' cried the convict, 'do you think I am going to meddle with the
dead? Follow me!'
And he scaled the walls of the churchyard, and broke open the Gothic
door of the church. Now he understood what his companion meant to do;
but his heart beat as if it would have started out of his breast. As he
went up the aisle, he felt as if he had lead in his shoes--as if the
flooring held him back at every step--as if it were a whole mile to
reach the altar. He had not entered the house of God since the day he
had been there to take upon himself his baptismal vow, and dedicate his
life to his Creator; and now--now he stood there to plunder! His hands
trembled violently, as he held open the sack for his comrade, who cast
into it the silver cups, the silver salvers, and everything that he
could find of value; and had it not been for fear of his ferocious
associate, he would assuredly have thrown down the sack and fled, for
he thought that the picture of Christ over the altar looked earnestly
and reproachfully at him. When his companion looked up from his
sacrilegious work, and observed his eyes fixed, as it were, by some
fearful fascination on the picture, he nodded to it in a scoffing
manner, and then closed the sack, and left the church.
When they were out of it, the prisoner breathed more freely; and when
they placed themselves on a tombstone to divide the booty, he received
without hesitation the portion that his comrade chose to allot to him.
They buried their treasure in the earth, and separated. But the massive
altar-plate could not easily be disposed of. He was in want; he begged
from door to door, but he was driven from them all; so he had again
recourse to stealing. Since the night that he had been drawn into
robbing the church, he had felt that he was an outcast from the whole
world--an outcast from God himself. He knew that punishment was sure to
overtake him, and he was miserable. His companion in guilt was soon
after arrested; he confessed all, and they were both imprisoned, and
put to hard labour.
But he had not yet quite lost all hope. He determined to work in future
for his daily bread. He came out of gaol a half-savage, half-frightened
being--lonely and deserted--bearing upon him that brand of infamy which
never more could be erased; but he had made up his mind to labour, and
he went far away to seek for employment.
It was the harvest-time. God had blessed the fields, and there were not
reapers enough to gather in the corn. No question was asked whence he
came, but his services were immediately accepted. There was something
in this display of the bounty of the Creator, in this activity, in this
working in the free open air, that pleased him; for the first time in
his life he toiled cheerfully. But the country people did not like him;
his look was downcast and dark--he was rough and passionate, abrupt in
speech, and he spoke little. After the farm-servants had one day
proposed to him to go to church, and he had refused positively, but
with an air of embarrassment, he was looked upon with great suspicion.
There was but one face that always smiled at him, and that was the face
of the youngest boy upon the farm. He had won the child's heart by
having once cut out some little boats for him, and sailed them in the
pond; and from that time the child always clapped his hands with joy
when he saw him. It was so new, so delightful to him to be beloved,
that he felt himself insensibly attracted towards the little creature.
He indulged him in all his childish whims, carried him about in his
arms, made toys for him, and seemed to feel himself well rewarded by
the innocent child's attachment.
Thus passed the winter. Peace, hitherto unknown to him, was creeping
into his heart; and when he stood in spring on the fields with the
sprouting seeds, and heard the lark's blithe carol, a new light began
to dawn on his benighted mind. One day, when he returned from the
fields towards the farm-yard, his little friend ran up to him, jumping
and playing. He stretched out his arms to the child, but in an instant
he started back, pale and horror-stricken. His former associate stood
before him, with a malignant smile upon his sinister countenance, and
held out his hand to him, while he said, in a tone of bitter irony,--
'So, from all I hear, you are playing the honest man in the place!
Excuse me for interrupting your rural content, but I have been longing
so much for you.'
'Away, demon!' cried the unfortunate man. 'Go, go, and leave me in
'Not so fast!' replied the other, with a withering sneer. 'I have told
the people of the farm who you are. Do you think I am going to lose so
useful a comrade?'
At that moment the grandfather of the child came up, and when he saw
the little boy in the arms of him whom he had just been told was a
malefactor, he snatched him hurriedly away, in spite of the child's
tears and cries; and applying many abusive epithets to the man, ordered
him instantly to leave the farm. The disturber of his peace carried him
off with him, while his fiendish laughter rang around!
See! the prisoner's chest is heaving with emotion. Hark! what deep
sighs seem to rend his heart, while a few scalding tears are falling
from his eyes! Of what is he dreaming now?
He sees himself, in the grey dawn of day, stealthily creeping along the
hedges that surround the farm, to catch a glimpse of his little
favourite. He beholds the infant's soft cheek wet with the tears of
affection; he feels his tiny arms clasped lightly round his neck; the
kind words of farewell ring in his ears; he listens again for the sound
of the retiring little footsteps, as the child is leaving him, and sees
the little hand waving to him a last adieu from the door of his
mother's house. As he then threw himself down beneath the hedge on the
dewy grass, and burst into tears, he now hides his face on his hard
pallet, and sobs aloud.
But he has risen from that recumbent position. He wrings his hands, and
his teeth chatter, in his solitary cell. What horror is passing through
his mind? What agonizing remembrance has seized him, and is shaking
soul and body, as the roaring tempest shakes the falling leaves? Let it
stand forth from its dark concealment! In vain he presses his hands on
his bloodshot eyes not to behold that scene--in vain he tries to close
his ears against those voices--the blackest night of his gloomy prison
cannot veil that picture, for it arises from the darkest depths of
his inmost soul.
Listen how his evil-minded associate tempts him, and draws him on!
'Yon old man at the farm has plenty of money--ready money--do you hear?
Do you think I lost my time there? His daughter and her husband are his
heirs; they do not need his gold so much as we do. The old man sleeps
in that low house near the larger one. It is but a step through the
window, and we shall be rich for a long time.'
'But what if he should awake, and recognize us?' asked the prisoner,
with much anxiety.
The other made a gesture which shocked him. He started back.
'No, no!' he cried, shuddering; 'no blood!'
His companion laughed.
'What matters it whether the old man dies a few days sooner or later?
People have generally no objection to the death of those to whom they
are to be heirs. And have you forgotten how roughly he spoke to you?
How he abused you, and drove you away? At that time I am sure you
thirsted for revenge. Besides, how are you going to live? Perhaps you
think you may find some good-natured fool to take a fancy to you; but
you forget that I like you too well to separate from you.'
Want, fear, revengeful feelings, got the better of him; but at night,
when like two spectres they glided along the road, it seemed to him
constantly as if some one saw him; and notwithstanding his companion's
ridicule, he frequently looked back. And truly there was ONE who
watched him, but not with any mortal eye. They opened the window, and
got in one after the other, and easily found the old man's desk, which
was in the next room. The robber's practised hand soon opened it, and
he was about to take its contents, when the door of the bedroom was
suddenly thrown back and rapidly shut, and the old man, who was still
hale and strong, entered, armed with a thick cudgel. A short but
furious struggle ensued; he remembered having seized him by the back of
his neck with both his hands, and dragged him down on the floor; he
remembered having heard some dull blows, that made him shiver with
horror, and then having stood in breathless dismay by a dead body. The
two criminals looked at each other with faces of ashy hue; then the
most hardened kicked the corpse to one side, and went to secure the
booty, while the prisoner opened the door of the sleeping-room to
But--oh, anguish unspeakable! oh, avenging God!--who should spring
forward to meet him, clinging to his knees and imploring his
protection--who but his innocent, unfortunate little favourite! He
started back, speechless and powerless; but when he beheld his comrade,
without uttering one word, brandish his knife, he clasped the child
with one arm in a convulsive embrace, and stretched out the other to
defend him against the ruffian.
'Shall he be left to betray us both to-morrow?' mumbled the wretch. 'He
must die, for your sake as well as mine.'
'Oh, let us take him with us!' prayed the other, in the deepest
agitation, while he tried to keep off the knife, which, however, he did
with difficulty, as the child held fast to his arm, and, in his terror
at the murderous weapon, hid his little face on that breast where he
had so often rested in happy confidence, his silver voice murmuring his
'You are mad,' said his companion. 'What should we do with the boy? Let
go your hold of him, I say--we have no time to lose--let him go, or it
will cost you your own life.'
The quivering lips of the miserable man had scarcely uttered a prayer
to wait, at least, till he could withdraw, when the child was torn from
him, and like a maniac he rushed away, sprang out of the window, threw
himself upon the ground, and buried his head among the long damp grass.
What a moment of agony! Such agony, that at the remembrance of it the
prisoner groaned aloud, and dashed his head against the stone wall,
then coiled himself up like a worm, as if he would fain have shrunk
The dear-bought, blood-stained booty was divided, and the criminal
associates separated. But suspicion fell upon them; they were pursued,
and soon taken. On being carried before a magistrate, he denied it all;
yet when he was placed by the dead body of the murdered child, guilt
spoke in his stiff, averted head--in the tell-tale perspiration that
stood on his brow--and in his clenched and trembling hands. He
confessed, and implored to be removed, even to prison, from the
harrowing spectacle. His accomplice was condemned to death, he himself
to imprisonment for life.
There he was now, alone with the dreadful recollections of former
days. The summer came and went, without bringing any other joy to him
than that the sun's rays fell broader, and more golden in their gleams
upon the wall outside that bounded his narrow view; and that now and
then a bird would fly over it, quiver a few notes, then wing its flight
away. That sight always awoke a voice in his heart that cried for
'Freedom--freedom!' But he would hush it with the thought, that he
could not be happier were he at liberty than in his dungeon cell. At
other times, he would take a violent longing to see a green leaf--only
a single green leaf--or a corn-blossom from the fields, or a blade of
grass. Ah! these were vain wishes! When winter came, and the sun and
the daylight forsook him so soon, he was still more gloomy, for he
could not sleep the whole of the long, long night, and the phantoms
that haunted him were terrific.
Once--it was a Christmas night--he was reflecting on all the joy that
was abroad in the world, and he thought if it would not be possible for
him to pray. Then long-forgotten words returned to his lips, and he
faltered out, 'Our Father, which art in heaven!'--but then he
'God is in heaven,' thought he, 'how can He condescend to hear the sigh
that arises from the hell within my breast? No, no--it is but mocking
Him for me to pray!'
Days and years had gone by since the prisoner had inhaled the breath of
the fresh balmy air, had beheld the extended vault of heaven, or
wandered in the bright, warm sunshine; at length the spirit had
exhausted the body. He lay ill and feeble, and death was near. Then was
the narrow door of his dungeon opened, and he was removed to a more
cheerful place--to a place where the blessed air and light were freely
admitted, and where the voices of human beings were around him. But
their compassion came too late. Earnestly did he entreat them to let
him see a minister of the Gospel; and when one came, he poured out the
misery of his soul to him. He listened with the deepest attention while
the holy man discoursed about Him, who, in His boundless love, shed His
own blood to wash out the sins of mankind, and in whose name even the
darkest and most guilty criminal might dare to raise his blood-stained
hands in prayer. How consoling were not these precious words to him,
'My God and my Saviour! With what an earnest longing he waited to be
permitted to participate in that solemn rite which, by grace and faith,
was to unite him to that Redeemer! And how he trembled lest the lamp of
his mortal life should be extinguished before the first spark of that
sacred flame was lighted, which was to be kindled for an endless
The time that his repentant spirit so thirsted for arrived. And when he
had partaken of the holy communion, and tears of penitent sorrow had
streamed over his burning cheeks, peace--long unknown--returned to his
weary heart, and his gratitude found vent in thanksgivings and prayer.
'Oh!' he exclaimed, as he looked out of his open window, 'it is spring,
my friends--I feel that it is spring, beautiful spring!'
'Yes,' replied the superintendent of the hospital, 'it is spring; even
the old tree by the wall is green. See here, as I passed it, I broke
off this budding twig for you;' and he placed the little green branch
in the hand of the dying man.
'Oh!' said he, with a melancholy smile and a tear in his eye, 'that
old, decayed, withered tree--can it put forth new leaves--fresh, green,
sweetly scented as these? May I not then venture to hope that the
Almighty may call forth a new life from me in another world? Oh, that
such may be His will!'
And with the green bough--the proof of God's power and goodness in his
hand, and with his Redeemer's promise on his lips, he passed to his
everlasting doom, in the blessed hope that he also might touch the hem
of his Saviour's garment, and hear these words of life--'Son, thy sins
be forgiven thee!'