Dream Children- A Reverie by Charles Lamb Full Text

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 grandame, 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 Redbreasts,
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 out 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 afterward 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 neighborhood
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 besides. Here little
Alice spread her hands. Then I told 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
county, 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
was 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
grand-children, having us to the great house in the holidays, where I in
particular used to spend many hours by myself, in 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 forbidden
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 about 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, along
with the 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 flavors 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
mediated dividing with her, and both seemed willing to relinquish them for the
present as irrelevant. Then, in somewhat 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 county 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 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 been dead an hour, it seemed as if he had died a great while
ago, such a distance there is betwixt life and death; and how I bore his death
as I thought pretty well at first, but afterward 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 I missed his crossness,
and wished him to be alive again, to be quarreling with him (for we quarreled
sometimes), rather than not have him again, and was as uneasy without him, as
he their poor uncle must have been when the doctor took off his limb. Here the
children fell a crying, and asked if their little mourning which 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 them 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 understand, I explained to them what coyness, and difficulty,
and denial meant in 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 awaking, I found myself quietly seated
in my bachelor armchair, where I had fallen asleep, with the faithful Bridget
unchanged by my side—but John L. (or James Elia) was gone forever.


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