"Dream Children- A Riverie" by Charles Lamb Full Text



Children love to listen to stories about their elders,
when they were children; to stretch their
imagination to the conception of a traditionary
great-uncle, or  granddame, whom they never saw.
It was in this spirit that my little ones crept about
me the other evening to hear about their great-
grandmother Field, who lived in a great house in
Norfolk (a hundred times bigger than that in which
they and papa lived), which had been the scene —
so at least it was generally believed in that part of
the country — of the tragic incidents which they
had lately become familiar with from the ballad of
the Children in the Wood. Certain it is that the
whole story of the children and their cruel uncle
was to be seen fairly carved out in wood upon the
chimney-piece of the great hall, the whole story 
down to the Robin Redbreast; till a foolish rich
person pulled it down to set up a marble one of 
modern invention in its stead, with no story upon 
it. Here Alice put on one of her dear mother's 
looks, too tender to be called upbraiding. Then 
I went on to say how religious and how good their 
great-grandmother Field was, how beloved and 
respected by everybody, though she was not indeed 
the mistress of this great house, but had only the 
charge of it (and yet in some respects she might be 
said to be the mistress of it, too) committed to her 
by the owner, who preferred living in a newer and 
more fashionable mansion which he had purchased 
somewhere in the adjoining county; but still she 
lived in it in a manner as if it had been her own, 
and kept up the dignity of the great house in a sort 
while she lived, which afterwards came to decay, 
and was nearly pulled down, and all its old ornaments
stripped and carried away to the owner's 
other house, where they were set up and looked 
as awkward as if some one were to carry away the 
old tombs they had seen lately at the Abbey, and 
stick them up in Lady C's tawdry gilt drawing- 
room. Here John smiled, as much as to say, "That 
would be foolish indeed." And then I told how 
when she came to die, her funeral was attended by 
a concourse of all the poor and some of the gentry, 
too, of the neighbourhood for many miles round, to 
show their respect for her memory, because she 
had been such a good and religious woman; so 
good, indeed, that she knew all the Psaltery by 
heart; aye,. and a great part of the Testament be- 
Sides. Here little Alice spread her hands. Then 
I told her what a tall, upright, graceful person their 
great-grandmother Field once was: and how in her 
youth she was esteemed the best dancer, — here 
Alice's little right foot played an involuntary movement, 
till upon my looking grave, it desisted, — the 
best dancer, I was saying, in the country, till a cruel 
disease, called a cancer, came and bowed her down 
with pain: but it could never bend her good spirits, 
or make them stoop, but they were still upright, 
because she was so good and religious. Then I 
told how she used to sleep by herself in a lone 
chamber of the great lone house; and how she believed 
that an apparition of two infants was to be 
seen at midnight gliding up and down the great 
staircase near where she slept, but she said, 'Those 
innocents would do her no harm;" and how frightened 
I used to be, though in those days I had my 
maid to sleep with me, because I was never half so 
good or religious as she, — and yet I never saw the 
infants. Here John expanded all his eyebrows and 
tried to look courageous. Then I told how good she 
was to all her grandchildren, having us to the great 
house in the holidays, where I in particular used to 
spend many hours by myself gazing upon the old 
busts of the twelve Caesars, that had been Emperors 
of Rome, till the old marble heads would seem to 
live again or I to be turned into marble with them; 
how I never could be tired with roaming about that 
huge mansion, with its vast empty rooms, with 
their worn-out hangings, fluttering tapestry, and 
carved oaken panels, with the gilding almost 
rubbed out,- — sometimes in the spacious old-fashioned 
gardens, which I had almost to myself, unless 
when now and then a solitary gardening man 
would cross me — and how the nectarines and 
peaches hung upon the walls, without my ever 
offering to pluck them, because they were for- 
bidden fruit, unless now and then — and because I 
had more pleasure in strolling about among the 
old melancholy-looking yew trees, or the firs, and 
picking up the red berries, and the fir-apples, which 
were good for nothing but to look at, — or in lying 
upon the fresh grass with all the fine garden smells 
around me, — or basking in the orangery, till I 
could almost fancy myself ripening too long with 
oranges and the limes in that grateful warmth, or 
in watching the dace that darted to and fro in the 
fish-pond, at the bottom of the garden, with here 
and there a great sulky pike hanging midway down 
the water in silent state, as if it mocked at their impertinent 
friskings: I had more pleasure in these 
busy-idle diversions than in all the sweet flowers 
of peaches, nectarines, oranges, and such-like common baits of 
children. Here John slyly deposited 
back upon the plate a bunch of grapes which, not 
unobserved by Alice, he had meditated dividing 
with her, and both seemed willing to relinquish 
them for the present as irrelevant. Then, in some- 
what a more heightened tone, I told how, though 
their great-grandmother Field loved all her grand- 
children, yet in an especial manner she might be 
said to love their uncle John L , because 
he was so handsome and spirited a youth, and a 
king to the rest of us; and, instead of moping about 
in solitary corners, like some of us, he would mount 
the most mettlesome horse he could get, when but 
an imp no bigger than themselves, and make it 
carry him half over the country in a morning, and 
join the hunters when there were any out, — and 
yet he loved the old great house and gardens, too, 
but had too much spirit to be always pent up 
within their boundaries, — and how their uncle grew 
up to a man's estate as brave as he was handsome, 
to the admiration of everybody, but of their great- 
grandmother Field most especially; and how he 
used to carry me upon his back when I was a lame- 
footed boy — for he was a good bit older than me 
— many a mile when I could not walk for pain; — 
and how in after-life he became lame-footed, too, 
and I did not always (I fear) make allowances 
enough for him when he was impatient and in pain, 
nor remember sufficiently how considerate he had 
been to me when I was lame-footed; and how when 
he died, though he had not yet been dead an hour, 
it seemed as if he had died a great while ago, such 
a distance there is between life and death, as I 
thought pretty well at first, but afterwards it 
haunted and haunted me; and though I did not 
cry or take it to heart as some do, and as I think 
he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him 
all day long, and knew not till then how much I 
had loved him. I missed his kindness, and missed
his crossness, and wished him to be alive again, 
to be quarrelling with him (for we quarrelled some- 
times), rather than not have him again, and was 
as uneasy without him, as he their poor uncle must 
have been when they took off his limb. Here the 
children fell a-crying, and asked if their little 
mourning they had on was not for Uncle John, and 
they looked up, and prayed me not to go on about 
their uncle, but to tell them some stories about 
their pretty dead mother. Then I told how, for 
seven long years, in hope sometimes, sometimes in 
despair, yet persisting ever, I courted the fair Alice 
W n; and, as much as children could under- 
stand, I explained to them what coyness, and difficulty, 
and denial meant to maidens, — when 
suddenly, turning to Alice, the soul of the first 
Alice looked out at her eyes with such a reality 
of re-presentment, that I became in doubt which of 
them stood there before me, or whose that bright 
hair was; and while I stood gazing, both the children 
gradually grew fainter to my view, receding, and 
still receding, till nothing at last but two mournful 
features were seen in the uttermost distance, which, 
without speech, strangely impressed upon me the 
effects of speech: ''We are not of Alice, nor of 
thee, nor are we children at all. The children of 
Alice call Bartrum father. We are nothing; less 
than nothing, and dreams. We are only what 
might have been, and must wait upon the tedious 
shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have 
existence, and a name" — and immediately awakening, 
I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor 
arm-chair, where I had fallen asleep, with the faithful 
Bridget unchanged by my side, — but John L, 
{or James Eli) was gone forever. 
 
 
 
 


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