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 liberty.

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 them.

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 not--'

'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 peace!'

'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 search it.

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 childish love.

'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 into nothing.

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 stopped.

'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 eternity!

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!'