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Chapter 12

THE DRUNKARD'S DEATH

We will be bold to say, that there is scarcely a man in the
constant habit of walking, day after day, through any of the
crowded thoroughfares of London, who cannot recollect among the
people whom he 'knows by sight,' to use a familiar phrase, some
being of abject and wretched appearance whom he remembers to have
seen in a very different condition, whom he has observed sinking
lower and lower, by almost imperceptible degrees, and the
shabbiness and utter destitution of whose appearance, at last,
strike forcibly and painfully upon him, as he passes by. Is there
any man who has mixed much with society, or whose avocations have
caused him to mingle, at one time or other, with a great number of
people, who cannot call to mind the time when some shabby,
miserable wretch, in rags and filth, who shuffles past him now in
all the squalor of disease and poverty, with a respectable
tradesman, or clerk, or a man following some thriving pursuit, with
good prospects, and decent means?--or cannot any of our readers
call to mind from among the list of their quondam acquaintance,
some fallen and degraded man, who lingers about the pavement in
hungry misery--from whom every one turns coldly away, and who
preserves himself from sheer starvation, nobody knows how? Alas!
such cases are of too frequent occurrence to be rare items in any
man's experience; and but too often arise from one cause--
drunkenness--that fierce rage for the slow, sure poison, that
oversteps every other consideration; that casts aside wife,
children, friends, happiness, and station; and hurries its victims
madly on to degradation and death.

Some of these men have been impelled, by misfortune and misery, to
the vice that has degraded them. The ruin of worldly expectations,
the death of those they loved, the sorrow that slowly consumes, but
will not break the heart, has driven them wild; and they present
the hideous spectacle of madmen, slowly dying by their own hands.
But by far the greater part have wilfully, and with open eyes,
plunged into the gulf from which the man who once enters it never
rises more, but into which he sinks deeper and deeper down, until
recovery is hopeless.

Such a man as this once stood by the bedside of his dying wife,
while his children knelt around, and mingled loud bursts of grief
with their innocent prayers. The room was scantily and meanly
furnished; and it needed but a glance at the pale form from which
the light of life was fast passing away, to know that grief, and
want, and anxious care, had been busy at the heart for many a weary
year. An elderly woman, with her face bathed in tears, was
supporting the head of the dying woman--her daughter--on her arm.
But it was not towards her that the was face turned; it was not her
hand that the cold and trembling fingers clasped; they pressed the
husband's arm; the eyes so soon to be closed in death rested on his
face, and the man shook beneath their gaze. His dress was slovenly
and disordered, his face inflamed, his eyes bloodshot and heavy.
He had been summoned from some wild debauch to the bed of sorrow
and death.

A shaded lamp by the bed-side cast a dim light on the figures
around, and left the remainder of the room in thick, deep shadow.
The silence of night prevailed without the house, and the stillness
of death was in the chamber. A watch hung over the mantel-shelf;
its low ticking was the only sound that broke the profound quiet,
but it was a solemn one, for well they knew, who heard it, that
before it had recorded the passing of another hour, it would beat
the knell of a departed spirit.

It is a dreadful thing to wait and watch for the approach of death;
to know that hope is gone, and recovery impossible; and to sit and
count the dreary hours through long, long nights--such nights as
only watchers by the bed of sickness know. It chills the blood to
hear the dearest secrets of the heart--the pent-up, hidden secrets
of many years--poured forth by the unconscious, helpless being
before you; and to think how little the reserve and cunning of a
whole life will avail, when fever and delirium tear off the mask at
last. Strange tales have been told in the wanderings of dying men;
tales so full of guilt and crime, that those who stood by the sick
person's couch have fled in horror and affright, lest they should
be scared to madness by what they heard and saw; and many a wretch
has died alone, raving of deeds the very name of which has driven
the boldest man away.

But no such ravings were to be heard at the bed-side by which the
children knelt. Their half-stifled sobs and moaning alone broke
the silence of the lonely chamber. And when at last the mother's
grasp relaxed, and, turning one look from the children to the
father, she vainly strove to speak, and fell backward on the
pillow, all was so calm and tranquil that she seemed to sink to
sleep. They leant over her; they called upon her name, softly at
first, and then in the loud and piercing tones of desperation. But
there was no reply. They listened for her breath, but no sound
came. They felt for the palpitation of the heart, but no faint
throb responded to the touch. That heart was broken, and she was
dead!

The husband sunk into a chair by the bed-side, and clasped his
hands upon his burning forehead. He gazed from child to child, but
when a weeping eye met his, he quailed beneath its look. No word
of comfort was whispered in his ear, no look of kindness lighted on
his face. All shrunk from and avoided him; and when at last he
staggered from the room, no one sought to follow or console the
widower.

The time had been when many a friend would have crowded round him
in his affliction, and many a heartfelt condolence would have met
him in his grief. Where were they now? One by one, friends,
relations, the commonest acquaintance even, had fallen off from and
deserted the drunkard. His wife alone had clung to him in good and
evil, in sickness and poverty, and how had he rewarded her? He had
reeled from the tavern to her bed-side in time to see her die.

He rushed from the house, and walked swiftly through the streets.
Remorse, fear, shame, all crowded on his mind. Stupefied with
drink, and bewildered with the scene he had just witnessed, he re-
entered the tavern he had quitted shortly before. Glass succeeded
glass. His blood mounted, and his brain whirled round. Death!
Every one must die, and why not SHE? She was too good for him; her
relations had often told him so. Curses on them! Had they not
deserted her, and left her to whine away the time at home? Well--
she was dead, and happy perhaps. It was better as it was. Another
glass--one more! Hurrah! It was a merry life while it lasted; and
he would make the most of it.

Time went on; the three children who were left to him, grew up, and
were children no longer. The father remained the same--poorer,
shabbier, and more dissolute-looking, but the same confirmed and
irreclaimable drunkard. The boys had, long ago, run wild in the
streets, and left him; the girl alone remained, but she worked
hard, and words or blows could always procure him something for the
tavern. So he went on in the old course, and a merry life he led.

One night, as early as ten o'clock--for the girl had been sick for
many days, and there was, consequently, little to spend at the
public-house--he bent his steps homeward, bethinking himself that
if he would have her able to earn money, it would be as well to
apply to the parish surgeon, or, at all events, to take the trouble
of inquiring what ailed her, which he had not yet thought it worth
while to do. It was a wet December night; the wind blew piercing
cold, and the rain poured heavily down. He begged a few halfpence
from a passer-by, and having bought a small loaf (for it was his
interest to keep the girl alive, if he could), he shuffled onwards
as fast as the wind and rain would let him.

At the back of Fleet-street, and lying between it and the water-
side, are several mean and narrow courts, which form a portion of
Whitefriars: it was to one of these that he directed his steps.

The alley into which he turned, might, for filth and misery, have
competed with the darkest corner of this ancient sanctuary in its
dirtiest and most lawless time. The houses, varying from two
stories in height to four, were stained with every indescribable
hue that long exposure to the weather, damp, and rottenness can
impart to tenements composed originally of the roughest and
coarsest materials. The windows were patched with paper, and
stuffed with the foulest rags; the doors were falling from their
hinges; poles with lines on which to dry clothes, projected from
every casement, and sounds of quarrelling or drunkenness issued
from every room.

The solitary oil lamp in the centre of the court had been blown
out, either by the violence of the wind or the act of some
inhabitant who had excellent reasons for objecting to his residence
being rendered too conspicuous; and the only light which fell upon
the broken and uneven pavement, was derived from the miserable
candles that here and there twinkled in the rooms of such of the
more fortunate residents as could afford to indulge in so expensive
a luxury. A gutter ran down the centre of the alley--all the
sluggish odours of which had been called forth by the rain; and as
the wind whistled through the old houses, the doors and shutters
creaked upon their hinges, and the windows shook in their frames,
with a violence which every moment seemed to threaten the
destruction of the whole place.

The man whom we have followed into this den, walked on in the
darkness, sometimes stumbling into the main gutter, and at others
into some branch repositories of garbage which had been formed by
the rain, until he reached the last house in the court. The door,
or rather what was left of it, stood ajar, for the convenience of
the numerous lodgers; and he proceeded to grope his way up the old
and broken stair, to the attic story.

He was within a step or two of his room door, when it opened, and a
girl, whose miserable and emaciated appearance was only to be
equalled by that of the candle which she shaded with her hand,
peeped anxiously out.

'Is that you, father?' said the girl.

'Who else should it be?' replied the man gruffly. 'What are you
trembling at? It's little enough that I've had to drink to-day,
for there's no drink without money, and no money without work.
What the devil's the matter with the girl?'

'I am not well, father--not at all well,' said the girl, bursting
into tears.

'Ah!' replied the man, in the tone of a person who is compelled to
admit a very unpleasant fact, to which he would rather remain
blind, if he could. 'You must get better somehow, for we must have
money. You must go to the parish doctor, and make him give you
some medicine. They're paid for it, damn 'em. What are you
standing before the door for? Let me come in, can't you?'

'Father,' whispered the girl, shutting the door behind her, and
placing herself before it, 'William has come back.'

'Who!' said the man with a start.

'Hush,' replied the girl, 'William; brother William.'

'And what does he want?' said the man, with an effort at composure-
-'money? meat? drink? He's come to the wrong shop for that, if he
does. Give me the candle--give me the candle, fool--I ain't going
to hurt him.' He snatched the candle from her hand, and walked
into the room.

Sitting on an old box, with his head resting on his hand, and his
eyes fixed on a wretched cinder fire that was smouldering on the
hearth, was a young man of about two-and-twenty, miserably clad in
an old coarse jacket and trousers. He started up when his father
entered.

'Fasten the door, Mary,' said the young man hastily--'Fasten the
door. You look as if you didn't know me, father. It's long
enough, since you drove me from home; you may well forget me.'

'And what do you want here, now?' said the father, seating himself
on a stool, on the other side of the fireplace. 'What do you want
here, now?'

'Shelter,' replied the son. 'I'm in trouble: that's enough. If
I'm caught I shall swing; that's certain. Caught I shall be,
unless I stop here; that's AS certain. And there's an end of it.'

'You mean to say, you've been robbing, or murdering, then?' said
the father.

'Yes, I do,' replied the son. 'Does it surprise you, father?' He
looked steadily in the man's face, but he withdrew his eyes, and
bent them on the ground.

'Where's your brothers?' he said, after a long pause.

'Where they'll never trouble you,' replied his son: 'John's gone
to America, and Henry's dead.'

'Dead!' said the father, with a shudder, which even he could not
express.

'Dead,' replied the young man. 'He died in my arms--shot like a
dog, by a gamekeeper. He staggered back, I caught him, and his
blood trickled down my hands. It poured out from his side like
water. He was weak, and it blinded him, but he threw himself down
on his knees, on the grass, and prayed to God, that if his mother
was in heaven, He would hear her prayers for pardon for her
youngest son. "I was her favourite boy, Will," he said, "and I am
glad to think, now, that when she was dying, though I was a very
young child then, and my little heart was almost bursting, I knelt
down at the foot of the bed, and thanked God for having made me so
fond of her as to have never once done anything to bring the tears
into her eyes. O Will, why was she taken away, and father left?"
There's his dying words, father,' said the young man; 'make the
best you can of 'em. You struck him across the face, in a drunken
fit, the morning we ran away; and here's the end of it.'

The girl wept aloud; and the father, sinking his head upon his
knees, rocked himself to and fro.

'If I am taken,' said the young man, 'I shall be carried back into
the country, and hung for that man's murder. They cannot trace me
here, without your assistance, father. For aught I know, you may
give me up to justice; but unless you do, here I stop, until I can
venture to escape abroad.'

For two whole days, all three remained in the wretched room,
without stirring out. On the third evening, however, the girl was
worse than she had been yet, and the few scraps of food they had
were gone. It was indispensably necessary that somebody should go
out; and as the girl was too weak and ill, the father went, just at
nightfall.

He got some medicine for the girl, and a trifle in the way of
pecuniary assistance. On his way back, he earned sixpence by
holding a horse; and he turned homewards with enough money to
supply their most pressing wants for two or three days to come. He
had to pass the public-house. He lingered for an instant, walked
past it, turned back again, lingered once more, and finally slunk
in. Two men whom he had not observed, were on the watch. They
were on the point of giving up their search in despair, when his
loitering attracted their attention; and when he entered the
public-house, they followed him.

'You'll drink with me, master,' said one of them, proffering him a
glass of liquor.

'And me too,' said the other, replenishing the glass as soon as it
was drained of its contents.

The man thought of his hungry children, and his son's danger. But
they were nothing to the drunkard. He DID drink; and his reason
left him.

'A wet night, Warden,' whispered one of the men in his ear, as he
at length turned to go away, after spending in liquor one-half of
the money on which, perhaps, his daughter's life depended.

'The right sort of night for our friends in hiding, Master Warden,'
whispered the other.

'Sit down here,' said the one who had spoken first, drawing him
into a corner. 'We have been looking arter the young un. We came
to tell him, it's all right now, but we couldn't find him 'cause we
hadn't got the precise direction. But that ain't strange, for I
don't think he know'd it himself, when he come to London, did he?'

'No, he didn't,' replied the father.

The two men exchanged glances.

'There's a vessel down at the docks, to sail at midnight, when it's
high water,' resumed the first speaker, 'and we'll put him on
board. His passage is taken in another name, and what's better
than that, it's paid for. It's lucky we met you.'

'Very,' said the second.

'Capital luck,' said the first, with a wink to his companion.

'Great,' replied the second, with a slight nod of intelligence.

'Another glass here; quick'--said the first speaker. And in five
minutes more, the father had unconsciously yielded up his own son
into the hangman's hands.

Slowly and heavily the time dragged along, as the brother and
sister, in their miserable hiding-place, listened in anxious
suspense to the slightest sound. At length, a heavy footstep was
heard upon the stair; it approached nearer; it reached the landing;
and the father staggered into the room.

The girl saw that he was intoxicated, and advanced with the candle
in her hand to meet him; she stopped short, gave a loud scream, and
fell senseless on the ground. She had caught sight of the shadow
of a man reflected on the floor. They both rushed in, and in
another instant the young man was a prisoner, and handcuffed.

'Very quietly done,' said one of the men to his companion, 'thanks
to the old man. Lift up the girl, Tom--come, come, it's no use
crying, young woman. It's all over now, and can't be helped.'

The young man stooped for an instant over the girl, and then turned
fiercely round upon his father, who had reeled against the wall,
and was gazing on the group with drunken stupidity.

'Listen to me, father,' he said, in a tone that made the drunkard's
flesh creep. 'My brother's blood, and mine, is on your head: I
never had kind look, or word, or care, from you, and alive or dead,
I never will forgive you. Die when you will, or how, I will be
with you. I speak as a dead man now, and I warn you, father, that
as surely as you must one day stand before your Maker, so surely
shall your children be there, hand in hand, to cry for judgment
against you.' He raised his manacled hands in a threatening
attitude, fixed his eyes on his shrinking parent, and slowly left
the room; and neither father nor sister ever beheld him more, on
this side of the grave.

When the dim and misty light of a winter's morning penetrated into
the narrow court, and struggled through the begrimed window of the
wretched room, Warden awoke from his heavy sleep, and found himself
alone. He rose, and looked round him; the old flock mattress on
the floor was undisturbed; everything was just as he remembered to
have seen it last: and there were no signs of any one, save
himself, having occupied the room during the night. He inquired of
the other lodgers, and of the neighbours; but his daughter had not
been seen or heard of. He rambled through the streets, and
scrutinised each wretched face among the crowds that thronged them,
with anxious eyes. But his search was fruitless, and he returned
to his garret when night came on, desolate and weary.

For many days he occupied himself in the same manner, but no trace
of his daughter did he meet with, and no word of her reached his
ears. At length he gave up the pursuit as hopeless. He had long
thought of the probability of her leaving him, and endeavouring to
gain her bread in quiet, elsewhere. She had left him at last to
starve alone. He ground his teeth, and cursed her!

He begged his bread from door to door. Every halfpenny he could
wring from the pity or credulity of those to whom he addressed
himself, was spent in the old way. A year passed over his head;
the roof of a jail was the only one that had sheltered him for many
months. He slept under archways, and in brickfields--anywhere,
where there was some warmth or shelter from the cold and rain. But
in the last stage of poverty, disease, and houseless want, he was a
drunkard still.

At last, one bitter night, he sunk down on a door-step faint and
ill. The premature decay of vice and profligacy had worn him to
the bone. His cheeks were hollow and livid; his eyes were sunken,
and their sight was dim. His legs trembled beneath his weight, and
a cold shiver ran through every limb.

And now the long-forgotten scenes of a misspent life crowded thick
and fast upon him. He thought of the time when he had a home--a
happy, cheerful home--and of those who peopled it, and flocked
about him then, until the forms of his elder children seemed to
rise from the grave, and stand about him--so plain, so clear, and
so distinct they were that he could touch and feel them. Looks
that he had long forgotten were fixed upon him once more; voices
long since hushed in death sounded in his ears like the music of
village bells. But it was only for an instant. The rain beat
heavily upon him; and cold and hunger were gnawing at his heart
again.

He rose, and dragged his feeble limbs a few paces further. The
street was silent and empty; the few passengers who passed by, at
that late hour, hurried quickly on, and his tremulous voice was
lost in the violence of the storm. Again that heavy chill struck
through his frame, and his blood seemed to stagnate beneath it. He
coiled himself up in a projecting doorway, and tried to sleep.

But sleep had fled from his dull and glazed eyes. His mind
wandered strangely, but he was awake, and conscious. The well-
known shout of drunken mirth sounded in his ear, the glass was at
his lips, the board was covered with choice rich food--they were
before him: he could see them all, he had but to reach out his
hand, and take them--and, though the illusion was reality itself,
he knew that he was sitting alone in the deserted street, watching
the rain-drops as they pattered on the stones; that death was
coming upon him by inches--and that there were none to care for or
help him.

Suddenly he started up, in the extremity of terror. He had heard
his own voice shouting in the night air, he knew not what, or why.
Hark! A groan!--another! His senses were leaving him: half-
formed and incoherent words burst from his lips; and his hands
sought to tear and lacerate his flesh. He was going mad, and he
shrieked for help till his voice failed him.

He raised his head, and looked up the long dismal street. He
recollected that outcasts like himself, condemned to wander day and
night in those dreadful streets, had sometimes gone distracted with
their own loneliness. He remembered to have heard many years
before that a homeless wretch had once been found in a solitary
corner, sharpening a rusty knife to plunge into his own heart,
preferring death to that endless, weary, wandering to and fro. In
an instant his resolve was taken, his limbs received new life; he
ran quickly from the spot, and paused not for breath until he
reached the river-side.

He crept softly down the steep stone stairs that lead from the
commencement of Waterloo Bridge, down to the water's level. He
crouched into a corner, and held his breath, as the patrol passed.
Never did prisoner's heart throb with the hope of liberty and life
half so eagerly as did that of the wretched man at the prospect of
death. The watch passed close to him, but he remained unobserved;
and after waiting till the sound of footsteps had died away in the
distance, he cautiously descended, and stood beneath the gloomy
arch that forms the landing-place from the river.

The tide was in, and the water flowed at his feet. The rain had
ceased, the wind was lulled, and all was, for the moment, still and
quiet--so quiet, that the slightest sound on the opposite bank,
even the rippling of the water against the barges that were moored
there, was distinctly audible to his ear. The stream stole
languidly and sluggishly on. Strange and fantastic forms rose to
the surface, and beckoned him to approach; dark gleaming eyes
peered from the water, and seemed to mock his hesitation, while
hollow murmurs from behind, urged him onwards. He retreated a few
paces, took a short run, desperate leap, and plunged into the
river.

Not five seconds had passed when he rose to the water's surface--
but what a change had taken place in that short time, in all his
thoughts and feelings! Life--life in any form, poverty, misery,
starvation--anything but death. He fought and struggled with the
water that closed over his head, and screamed in agonies of terror.
The curse of his own son rang in his ears. The shore--but one foot
of dry ground--he could almost touch the step. One hand's breadth
nearer, and he was saved--but the tide bore him onward, under the
dark arches of the bridge, and he sank to the bottom.

Again he rose, and struggled for life. For one instant--for one
brief instant--the buildings on the river's banks, the lights on
the bridge through which the current had borne him, the black
water, and the fast-flying clouds, were distinctly visible--once
more he sunk, and once again he rose. Bright flames of fire shot
up from earth to heaven, and reeled before his eyes, while the
water thundered in his ears, and stunned him with its furious roar.

A week afterwards the body was washed ashore, some miles down the
river, a swollen and disfigured mass. Unrecognised and unpitied,
it was borne to the grave; and there it has long since mouldered
away!

Charles Dickens