Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960

   

   Search Site

 

in Western Literature

An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

 • Home •  • Preface • • Introduction •  • Chronology •  • Index •  • About the Author •

[PREVIOUS]

Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature

[NEXT]

Printable Page

   
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1838 Chapter 47,
Fatal Consequences:

Death of Nancy

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841,  
Chapter 71

Death of Little Nell

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1838 Chapter 47, Fatal Consequences:

Death of Nancy

Without one pause, or moment’s consideration; without turning his head to the right or left, raising his eyes to the sky, or lowering them to the ground, but looking straight before him with savage resolution: his teeth so tightly compressed that the strained jaw seemed starting through his skin; the robber held on his headlong course, nor muttered a word, nor relaxed a muscle, until he reached his own door. He opened it, softly, with a key; strode lightly up the stairs; and entering his own room, doublelocked the door, and lifting a heavy table against, drew back the curtain of the bed.

The girl was lying, half-dressed, upon it. He had roused her from her sleep for she raised herself with a hurried and startled look.

"Get up!" said the man.

"It is you, Bill!" said the girl, with an expression of pleasure at his return.

"It is," was the reply. "Get up."

There was a candle burning, but the man hastily drew it from the candlestick, and hurled it under the grate. Seeing the faint light of early day without, the girl rose to undraw the curtain.

"Lit it be," said Sikes, thrusting his hand before her. "There’s light enough for wot I’ve got to do."

"Bill," said the girl, in the low voice of alarm, "why do you look like that at me!"

The robber sat regarding her, for a few seconds, with dilated nostrils and heaving breast; and then, grasping her by the head and throat, dragged her into the middle of the room, and looking once towards the door, placed his heavy hand upon her mouth.

"Bill, Bill! Gasped the girl, wrestling with the strength of mortal fear, — "I — I — won’t scream or cry — not once — hear me — speak to me — tell me what I have done!"

"You know, you she devil!" Returned the robber, suppressing his breath. "You were watched tonight; every word you said was heard."

"Then spare my life for the love of Heaven, as I spared yours," rejoined the girl, clinging to him. "Bill, dear Bill, you cannot have the heart to kill me. Oh! Think of all I have given up, only this one night, for you. You shall have time to think, and save yourself this crime; I will not loose my hold, you cannot throw me off. Bill, Bill, for dear God’s sake, for your own, for mine, stop before you spill my blood! I have been true to you, upon my guilty soul I have!

The man struggled violently, to release his arms; but those of the girl were clasp round his, and tear her as he would, he could not tear them away.

"Bill," cried the girl, striving to lay her head upon his breast, "the gentleman and that dear lady, told me tonight of a home in some foreign country where I could end my days in solitude and peace. Let me see them again, and beg them, on my knees, to show the same mercy and goodness to you; and let us leave this dreadful place, and far apart lead better lives, and forget how we have lived, except in prayers, and never see each other more. It is never too late to repent. They told me so — I feel it now — but we must have time — a little, little time!"

The housebreaker freed one arm, and grasped his pistol. The certainly of immediate detection if he fired, flashed across his mind even in the midst of his fury; and he beat it with all the force he could summon, upon the upturned face that almost touched his own.

She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief — Rose Maylie’s own — and holding it up, folded her hands, as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.

It was a ghastly figure to look upon. The murderer staggering backward to the wall, and shutting out of sight with his hand, seized a heavy club and struck her down.

Chapter 48 Begins:

Of all bad deeds that, under cover of the darkness, have been committed within wide London’s bounds since night hung over it, that was the worst. Of all the horrors that rose with an ill scent upon the morning air, that was the foulest and most cruel.

The sun — the bright son, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man — burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal rays. It lighted up the room where the murdered woman lay. It did. He tried to shut it out, but it would stream in. If the sight had been a ghastly one in the dull morning, what was it, now in all that brilliant light!

He had not moved; he had been afraid to stir. There had been a moan and motion of the hand; and, with terror added to rage, he had struck and struck again.

Once he threw a rug over it; but it was worse to fancy the eyes, and imagine them moving towards him, than to see them glaring upward, as if watching the reflection of the pool of gore that quivered and danced in the sunlight on the ceiling. He had plucked it off again. And there was the body — mere flesh and blood, no more — but such flesh, and so much blood!

He struck a light, kindled a fire, and thrust the club into it. There was hair upon the end, which blazed and shrunk into a light cinder, and, caught by the air, whirled up the chimney. Even that frightened him, sturdy as he was; but he held the weapon till it broke, and then piled it on the coals to burn away, and smoulder into ashes. He washed himself, and rubbed his clothes; there were spots that would not be removed, but he cut the pieces out, and burnt them. How those stains were dispersed about the room! The very feet of the dog were bloody.

All this time he had, never once, turned his back upon the corpse; no, not for a moment. Such preparations completed, he moved, backward, towards the door: dragging the dog with him, lest he should soil his feet anew and carry out new evidence of the crime into the streets. He shut the door softly, locked it, took the key, and left the house.

He crossed over, and glanced up at the window, to be sure that nothing was visible from the outside. There was the curtain still drawn, which she would have opened to admit the light she never saw again. It lay nearly under there. He knew that. God, how the sun poured down upon the very spot!

The glance was instantaneous. It was a relief to have got free of the room. He whistled on the dog, and walked rapidly away.


Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841

Death of Little Nell, Chapter 71

"…Where is she?" demanded Kit. "Oh tell me that, — but that, dear master!"

"She is asleep — yonder — in there."

"Thank God!"

"Aye! Thank God!" returned the old man. "I have prayed to Him, many, and many, and many a live long night, when she has been asleep, He knows. Hark! Did she call?"

"I heard no voice."

"You did. You hear her now. Do you tell me that you don’t hear THAT?"

He started up, and listened again.

"Nor that?" he cried, with a triumphant smile, "Can anybody know that voice so well as I? Hush! Hush!" Motioning to him to be silent, he stole away into another chamber. After a short absence (during which he could be heard to speak in a softening soothing tone) he returned, bearing in his hand a lamp.

"She is still asleep," he whispered. "You were right. She did not call — unless she did so in her slumber. She has called to me in her sleep before now, sir; as I have sat by watching. I have seen her lips move, and have known, though no sound came from them, that she spoke of me. I feared the light might dazzle her eyes and wake her, so I brought it here.

He spoke rather to himself that to the visitor, but when he had put the lamp upon the table, he took it up, as if impelled by some momentary recollection or curiosity, and held it near his face. Then, as if forgetting his motive in the very action.

He turned away and put it down again. "She is sleeping soundly," he said; "but no wonder. Angel hands have strewn the ground deep with snow, that the lightest footstep may be lighter yet; and the very birds are dead, that they may not wake her. She used to feed them, Sir. Though never so cold and hungry, the timid things would fly from us. They never flew from her!"

Again he stopped to listen, and scarcely drawing breath, listened for a long, long time. That fancy past, he opened an old chest, took out some clothes as fondly as if they had been living things, and began to smooth and brush them with his hand.

"Why dost thou lie so idle there, dear Nell," he murmured, "when there are bright red berries out of doors waiting for thee to pluck them! Why dost thou lie so idle there, when thy little friends come creeping to the door, crying, ‘where is Nell — sweet Nell?’ — and sob, and weep, because they do not see thee. She was always gentle with children. The wildest would do her bidding — she had a tender way with them, indeed she had."

Kit had no power to speak. His eyes were filled with tears.

"Here little homely dress, — her favourite!" cried the old man, pressing it to his breast, and patting it with his shriveled hand. "She will miss it when she wakes. They have hid it here in sport, but she shall have it — she shall have it. I would not vex my darling, for the wide world’s riches. See here — these shoes — how worn they are — she kept them to remind her of our last long journey. You see where the little feet went bare upon the ground. They told me, afterwards, that the stone had cut and bruised them. She never told me that. No, no, God bless her! And, I have remembered since, she walked behind me, sir, that I might not see how lame she was — but yet had my hand in hers, and seemed to lead me still." He pressed them to his lips, and having carefully put them back again, went on communing with himself — looking wistfully from time to time towards the chamber he had lately visited.

"She was not wont to be a lie-abed: but she was well then. We must have patience. When she is well again, she will rise early, as she used to do, and ramble abroad in the healthy morning time. I often tried to track the way she had gone, but her small footsteps left no print upon the dewy ground, to guide me. Who is that? Shut the door. Quick! — Have we not enough to do to drive away that marble cold, and keep her warm!"

Friends enter and talk:

They watched him as he rose and stole on tiptoe to the other chamber where the lamp had been replaced. They listened as he spoke again within the silent walls. They looked into the faces of each other, and no man’s cheek was free from tears. He came back, whispering that she was still asleep, but that he thought she had moved. It was her hand, he said — a little — a very, very little — but he was pretty sure she had moved it — perhaps in seeking his. He had known her do that, before now, though in the deepest sleep the while. And when he had said this, he dropped into his chair again, and clasping his hands above his head, uttered a cry never to be forgotten.

The poor schoolmaster motioned to the bachelor that he would come on the other side, and speak to him. They gently unlocked his fingers, which he had twisted in his grey hair, and pressed them in their own.

Friends console and…

By little and little, the old man had drawn back towards the inner chamber, while these words were spoken. He pointed there, as he replied, with trembling lips.

"You plot among you to wean my heart from her. You never will do that — never while I have life. I have no relative or friend but her — I never had — I never will have. She is all in all to me. It is too late to part us now."

Waving them off with his hand, and calling softly to her as he went, he stole into the room. They who were left behind, drew close together, and after a few whispered words — not unbroken by emotion, or easily uttered — followed him.

They moved so gently, that their footsteps made no noise; but there were sobs from among the group, and sounds of grief and mourning.

For she was dead. There, upon her little bed, she lay at rest. The solemn stillness was no marvel now.

She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon She seemed a creature from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death.

Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. "When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always." Those were her last words.

She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child mistress was mute and motionless forever.

Where were the traces of her early cares, her suffering, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.

And still her former self lay there, unaltered in this change. Yes. The old fireside had smiled upon that same sweet face; it had passed, like a dream, through haunts of misery and care; at the door of the poor schoolmaster on the summer evening, before the furnace fire upon the cold wet night, at the still bedside of the dying boy, there had been the same mild lovely look. So shall we know angels in their majesty, after death.

The old man held one languid arm in his, and had the small hand tight folded to his breast, for warmth. It was the hand she had stretched out to him with her last smile — the hand that had led him on, through all their wanderings. Ever and anon he pressed it to his lips; then hugged it to his breast again, murmuring that it was warmer now; and, as he said it, he looked, in agony, to those who stood around, as if imploring them to help her.

She was dead, and past all help, or need of it. The ancient rooms she had seemed to fill with life, even while her own was waning fast — the garden she had tended — the eyes she had gladdened — the noiseless haunts of many a thoughtful hour — the paths she had trodden as it were but yesterday — could know her never more.

"It is not," said the schoolmaster, as he bent down to kiss her on the cheek, and gave his tears free vent, "it is not on earth that Heaven’s justice ends. Think what earth is, compared with the World to which her young spirit has winged its early flight; and say, if one deliberate wish expressed in solemn terms above this bed could call her back to life, which of us would utter it!"

 
   
 

Adrienne Nater, 2008

www.DeathDyingGriefandMourning.com

©© 2008 Adrienne Nater. All rights reserved.