Charles Dickens: A Confession Found in a Prison in the Time of Charles The Second

I

held a lieu­tenant's com­mis­sion in his Majesty's army, and served abroad in the cam­paigns of 1677 and 1678. The treaty of Nimeguen being con­clud­ed, I re­turned home, and re­tir­ing from the ser­vice, with­drew to a small es­tate lying a few miles east of Lon­don, which I had re­cent­ly ac­quired in right of my wife.

This is the last night I have to live, and I will set down the naked truth with­out dis­guise. I was never a brave man, and had al­ways been from my child­hood of a se­cret, sullen, dis­trust­ful na­ture. I speak of my­self as if I had passed from the world; for while I write this, my grave is dig­ging, and my name is writ­ten in the black-book of death.

Soon after my re­turn to Eng­land, my only broth­er was seized with mor­tal ill­ness. This cir­cum­stance gave me slight or no pain; for since we had been men, we had as­so­ci­at­ed but very lit­tle to­geth­er. He was open-heart­ed and gen­er­ous, hand­somer than I, more ac­com­plished, and gen­er­al­ly beloved. Those who sought my ac­quain­tance abroad or at home, be­cause they were friends of his, sel­dom at­tached them­selves to me long, and would usu­al­ly say, in our first con­ver­sa­tion, that they were sur­prised to find two broth­ers so un­like in their man­ners and ap­pear­ance. It was my habit to lead them on to this avow­al; for I knew what com­par­isons they must draw be­tween us; and hav­ing a rankling envy in my heart, I sought to jus­ti­fy it to my­self.

We had mar­ried two sis­ters. This ad­di­tion­al tie be­tween us, as it may ap­pear to some, only es­tranged us the more. His wife knew me well. I never strug­gled with any se­cret jeal­ousy or gall when she was pre­sent but that woman knew it as well as I did. I never raised my eyes at such times but I found hers fixed upon me; I never bent them on the ground or looked an­oth­er way but I felt that she over­looked me al­ways. It was an in­ex­press­ible re­lief to me when we quar­relled, and a greater re­lief still when I heard abroad that she was dead. It seems to me now as if some strange and ter­ri­ble fore­shad­ow­ing of what has hap­pened since must have hung over us then. I was afraid of her; she haunt­ed me; her fixed and steady look comes back upon me now, like the mem­o­ry of a dark dream, and makes my blood run cold.

She died short­ly after giv­ing birth to a child — a boy. When my broth­er knew that all hope of his own re­cov­ery was past, he called my wife to his bed­side, and con­fid­ed this or­phan, a child of four years old, to her pro­tec­tion. He be­queathed to him all the prop­er­ty he had, and willed that, in case of his child's death, it should pass to my wife, as the only ac­knowl­edg­ment he could make her for her care and love. He ex­changed a few broth­er­ly words with me, de­plor­ing our long sep­a­ra­tion; and being ex­haust­ed, fell into a slum­ber, from which he never awoke.

We had no chil­dren; and as there had been a strong af­fec­tion be­tween the sis­ters, and my wife had al­most sup­plied the place of a moth­er to this boy, she loved him as if he had been her own. The child was ar­dent­ly at­tached to her; but he was his moth­er's image in face and spir­it, and al­ways mis­trust­ed me.

I can scarce­ly fix the date when the feel­ing first came upon me; but I soon began to be un­easy when this child was by. I never roused my­self from some moody train of thought but I marked him look­ing at me; not with mere child­ish won­der, but with some­thing of the pur­pose and mean­ing that I had so often noted in his moth­er. It was no ef­fort of my fancy, found­ed on close re­sem­blance of fea­ture and ex­pres­sion. I never could look the boy down. He feared me, but seemed by some in­stinct to de­spise me while he did so; and even when he drew back be­neath my gaze — as he would when we were alone, to get near­er to the door — he would keep his bright eyes upon me still.

Per­haps I hide the truth from my­self, but I do not think that, when this began, I med­i­tat­ed to do him any wrong. I may have thought how ser­vice­able his in­her­i­tance would be to us, and may have wished him dead; but I be­lieve I had no thought of com­pass­ing his death. Nei­ther did the idea come upon me at once, but by very slow de­grees, pre­sent­ing it­self at first in dim shapes at a very great dis­tance, as men may think of an earth­quake or the last day; then draw­ing near­er and near­er, and los­ing some­thing of its hor­ror and im­prob­a­bil­i­ty; then com­ing to be part and par­cel — nay near­ly the whole sum and sub­stance — of my daily thoughts, and re­solv­ing it­self into a ques­tion of means and safe­ty; not of doing or ab­stain­ing from the deed.

While this was going on with­in me, I never could bear that the child should see me look­ing at him, and yet I was under a fas­ci­na­tion which made it a kind of busi­ness with me to con­tem­plate his slight and frag­ile fig­ure and think how eas­i­ly it might be done. Some­times I would steal up-stairs and watch him as he slept; but usu­al­ly I hov­ered in the gar­den near the win­dow of the room in which he learnt his lit­tle tasks; and there, as he sat upon a low seat be­side my wife, I would peer at him for hours to­geth­er from be­hind a tree; start­ing, like the guilty wretch I was, at every rustling of a leaf, and still glid­ing back to look and start again.

Hard by our cot­tage, but quite out of sight, and (if there were any wind astir) of hear­ing too, was a deep sheet of water. I spent days in shap­ing with my pock­et-knife a rough model of a boat, which I fin­ished at last and dropped in the child's way. Then I with­drew to a se­cret place, which he must pass if he stole away alone to swim this bauble, and lurked there for his com­ing. He came nei­ther that day nor the next, though I wait­ed from noon till night­fall. I was sure that I had him in my net, for I had heard him prat­tling of the toy, and knew that in his in­fant plea­sure he kept it by his side in bed. I felt no weari­ness or fa­tigue, but wait­ed pa­tient­ly, and on the third day he passed me, run­ning joy­ous­ly along, with his silken hair stream­ing in the wind, and he singing — God have mercy upon me! — singing a merry bal­lad, — who could hard­ly lisp the words.

I stole down after him, creep­ing under cer­tain shrubs which grow in that place, and none but dev­ils know with what ter­ror I, a strong, full-grown man, tracked the foot­steps of that baby as he ap­proached the water's brink. I was close upon him, had sunk upon my knee and raised my hand to thrust him in, when he saw my shad­ow in the stream and turned him round.

His moth­er's ghost was look­ing from his eyes. The sun burst forth from be­hind a cloud; it shone in the bright sky, the glis­ten­ing earth, the clear water, the sparkling drops of rain upon the leaves. There were eyes in ev­ery­thing. The whole great uni­verse of light was there to see the mur­der done. I know not what he said; he came of bold and manly blood, and, child as he was, he did not crouch or fawn upon me. I heard him cry that he would try to love me, — not that he did, — and then I saw him run­ning back to­wards the house. The next I saw was my own sword naked in my hand, and he lying at my feet stark dead, — dab­bled here and there with blood, but oth­er­wise no dif­fer­ent from what I had seen him in his sleep — in the same at­ti­tude too, with his cheek rest­ing upon his lit­tle hand.

I took him in my arms and laid him — very gen­tly now that he was dead — in a thick­et. My wife was from home that day, and would not re­turn until the next. Our bed­room win­dow, the only sleep­ing-room on that side of the house, was but a few feet from the ground, and I re­solved to de­scend from it at night and bury him in the gar­den. I had no thought that I had failed in my de­sign, no thought that the water would be dragged and noth­ing found, that the money must now lie waste, since I must en­cour­age the idea that the child was lost or stolen. All my thoughts were bound up and knot­ted to­geth­er in the one ab­sorb­ing ne­ces­si­ty of hid­ing what I had done.

How I felt when they came to tell me that the child was miss­ing, when I or­dered scouts in all di­rec­tions, when I gasped and trem­bled at every one's ap­proach, no tongue can tell or mind of man con­ceive. I buried him that night. When I part­ed the boughs and looked into the dark thick­et, there was a glow-worm shin­ing like the vis­i­ble spir­it of God upon the mur­dered child. I glanced down into his grave when I had placed him there, and still it gleamed upon his breast; an eye of fire look­ing up to Heav­en in sup­pli­ca­tion to the stars that watched me at my work.

I had to meet my wife, and break the news, and give her hope that the child would soon be found. All this I did, — with some ap­pear­ance, I sup­pose, of being sin­cere, for I was the ob­ject of no sus­pi­cion. This done, I sat at the bed­room win­dow all day long, and watched the spot where the dread­ful se­cret lay.

It was in a piece of ground which had been dug up to be newly turfed, and which I had cho­sen on that ac­count, as the traces of my spade were less like­ly to at­tract at­ten­tion. The men who laid down the grass must have thought me mad. I called to them con­tin­u­al­ly to ex­pe­dite their work, ran out and worked be­side them, trod down the earth with my feet, and hur­ried them with fran­tic ea­ger­ness. They had fin­ished their task be­fore night, and then I thought my­self com­par­a­tive­ly safe.

I slept, — not as men do who awake re­freshed and cheer­ful, but I did sleep, pass­ing from vague and shad­owy dreams of being hunt­ed down, to vi­sions of the plot of grass, through which now a hand, and now a foot, and now the head it­self was start­ing out. At this point I al­ways woke and stole to the win­dow, to make sure that it was not re­al­ly so. That done, I crept to bed again; and thus I spent the night in fits and starts, get­ting up and lying down full twen­ty times, and dream­ing the same dream over and over again, — which was far worse than lying awake, for every dream had a whole night's suf­fer­ing of its own. Once I thought the child was alive, and that I had never tried to kill him. To wake from that dream was the most dread­ful agony of all.

The next day I sat at the win­dow again, never once tak­ing my eyes from the place, which, al­though it was cov­ered by the grass, was as plain to me — its shape, its size, its depth, its jagged sides, and all — as if it had been open to the light of day. When a ser­vant walked across it, I felt as if he must sink in; when he had passed, I looked to see that his feet had not worn the edges. If a bird light­ed there, I was in ter­ror lest by some tremen­dous in­ter­po­si­tion it should be in­stru­men­tal in the dis­cov­ery; if a breath of air sighed across it, to me it whis­pered mur­der. There was not a sight or a sound — how or­di­nary, mean, or unim­por­tant so­ev­er — but was fraught with fear. And in this state of cease­less watch­ing I spent three days.

On the fourth there came to the gate one who had served with me abroad, ac­com­pa­nied by a broth­er of­fi­cer of his whom I had never seen. I felt that I could not bear to be out of sight of the place. It was a sum­mer evening, and I bade my peo­ple take a table and a flask of wine into the gar­den. Then I sat down WITH MY CHAIR UPON THE GRAVE, and being as­sured that no­body could dis­turb it now with­out my knowl­edge, tried to drink and talk.

They hoped that my wife was well, — that she was not obliged to keep her cham­ber, — that they had not fright­ened her away. What could I do but tell them with a fal­ter­ing tongue about the child? The of­fi­cer whom I did not know was a down-look­ing man, and kept his eyes upon the ground while I was speak­ing. Even that ter­ri­fied me. I could not di­vest my­self of the idea that he saw some­thing there which caused him to sus­pect the truth. I asked him hur­ried­ly if he sup­posed that — and stopped. 'That the child has been mur­dered?' said he, look­ing mild­ly at me: 'O no! what could a man gain by mur­der­ing a poor child?' I could have told him what a man gained by such a deed, no one bet­ter: but I held my peace and shiv­ered as with an ague.

Mis­tak­ing my emo­tion, they were en­deav­our­ing to cheer me with the hope that the boy would cer­tain­ly be found, — great cheer that was for me! — when we heard a low deep howl, and present­ly there sprung over the wall two great dogs, who, bound­ing into the gar­den, re­peat­ed the bay­ing sound we had heard be­fore.

'Blood­hounds!' cried my vis­i­tors.

What need to tell me that! I had never seen one of that kind in all my life, but I knew what they were and for what pur­pose they had come. I grasped the el­bows of my chair, and nei­ther spoke nor moved.

'They are of the gen­uine breed,' said the man whom I had known abroad, 'and being out for ex­er­cise have no doubt es­caped from their keep­er.'

Both he and his friend turned to look at the dogs, who with their noses to the ground moved rest­less­ly about, run­ning to and fro, and up and down, and across, and round in cir­cles, ca­reer­ing about like wild things, and all this time tak­ing no no­tice of us, but ever and again re­peat­ing the yell we had heard al­ready, then drop­ping their noses to the ground again and track­ing earnest­ly here and there. They now began to snuff the earth more ea­ger­ly than they had done yet, and al­though they were still very rest­less, no longer beat about in such wide cir­cuits, but kept near to one spot, and con­stant­ly di­min­ished the dis­tance be­tween them­selves and me.

At last they came up close to the great chair on which I sat, and rais­ing their fright­ful howl once more, tried to tear away the wood­en rails that kept them from the ground be­neath. I saw how I looked, in the faces of the two who were with me.

'They scent some prey,' said they, both to­geth­er.

'They scent no prey!' cried I.

'In Heav­en's name, move!' said the one I knew, very earnest­ly, 'or you will be torn to pieces.'

'Let them tear me from limb to limb, I'll never leave this place!' cried I. 'Are dogs to hurry men to shame­ful deaths? Hew them down, cut them in pieces.'

'There is some foul mys­tery here!' said the of­fi­cer whom I did not know, draw­ing his sword. 'In King Charles's name, as­sist me to se­cure this man.'

They both set upon me and forced me away, though I fought and bit and caught at them like a mad­man. After a strug­gle, they got me qui­et­ly be­tween them; and then, my God! I saw the angry dogs tear­ing at the earth and throw­ing it up into the air like water.

What more have I to tell? That I fell upon my knees, and with chat­ter­ing teeth con­fessed the truth, and prayed to be for­giv­en. That I have since de­nied, and now con­fess to it again. That I have been tried for the crime, found guilty, and sen­tenced. That I have not the courage to an­tic­i­pate my doom, or to bear up man­ful­ly against it. That I have no com­pas­sion, no con­so­la­tion, no hope, no friend. That my wife has hap­pi­ly lost for the time those fac­ul­ties which would en­able her to know my mis­ery or hers. That I am alone in this stone dun­geon with my evil spir­it, and that I die to-mor­row.