Death: Dickens and Little Nell

Little Nell and Grandfather

Little Nell and Grandfather

DICKENS.

On Mr. Dickens’ first visit to this country he made a speech at the dinner given him in Boston, in which he thus alluded to Little Nell:

“There is one other point connected with the labors (if I may call them so) that you hold in such generous esteem, to which I cannot help adverting. I cannot help expressing the delight, the more than happiness, it was to me to find so strong an interest awakened on this side of the water in favor of that little heroine of mine to whom your President made allusion, who died in her youth. I had letter about that child, in England, from the dwellers in log huts among the morasses and swamps, and densest forests and deep solitudes of the Far West. Many a sturdy hand, hard with the axe and spade and browned by the summer’s sun has taken up the pen and written to me a little history of domestic joy or sorrow, always coupled, I am proud to say, with something of interest in that little tale, or some comfort or happiness derived from it; and the writer has always addressed me, not as a writer of books for sale, resident some four or five thousand miles away, but as a friend to whom he might freely impart the joys and sorrows of his own fireside. Many a mother — I could reckon them now by dozens, not by units — has done the like; and has told me how she lost such a child at such a time, and where she lay buried, and how good she was, and how in this or that respect she resembled Nell. I do assure you that no circumstance of my life has given me one hundredth part of the gratification I have derived from this source. I was wavering at the time whether or not to wind up my clock and come and see this country; and this decided me. I feel as if it were a positive duty; as if I were bound to pack up my clothes and come and see my friends; and even now I have such an odd sensation in connection with these things that you have no chance of spoiling me. I feel as though we were agreeing — as indeed we are, if we substitute for fictitious characters the classes from which they are drawn — about third parties, in whom we had a common interest. At every new act of kindness on your part, I say it to myself, That’s for Oliver — I should not wonder if that was meant for Smike — I have no doubt that it was intended for Nell; and so became a much happier, certainly, but a more sober and retiring man than ever I was before.”

There are none, we think, who will not, after reading this allusion to the child who has so long been a reality to many minds, take a sad interest in recalling the final scene of her life:

DEATH OF LITTLE NELL.

She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh 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 favor. “When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.” Those were her 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 sufferings, 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 its change. Yes! the old fireside had smiled upon that same sweet face; it had passed like a dream, through the 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 and lovely look. So shall we know the angels, in their majesty, after death.

The old man held one languid are in his, and the small, tight hand 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 hope, or need of help. 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 thoughtless hour, the paths she had trodden, as it were, but yesterday, could know her no 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 in [this] world that Heaven’s justice ends. Think what it is, compared with the world to which her young spirit has winged its early flight, and say, if one deliberate wish, expressed in solemn tones, above this bed, could call her back to life, which of us would utter it?”

She had been dead two days. They were all about her at the time, knowing that the end was drawing on. She died soon after daybreak. They had read and talked to her in the earlier portion of the night; but, as the hours crept on, she sank to sleep. They could tell by what she faintly uttered in her dreams, that they were of her journeyings with the old man; they were of no painful scenes, but of those who had helped them, and used them kindly; for she often said “God bless you!” with great fervor.

Waking, she never wandered in her mind but once, and that was at beautiful music, which, she said, was in the air. God knows. It may have been. Opening her eyes, at last, from a very quiet sleep, she begged that they would kiss her once again. That done she turned to the old man, with a lovely smile upon her face, such, they said, as they had never seen, and could never forget, and clung, with both arms, about his neck. She had never murmured or complained; but, with a quiet mind, and manner unaltered, save that she every day became more earnest and more grateful to them, faded like the light upon the summer’s evening.

Along the crowded path they bore her now, pure as the new fallen snow that covered it, whose day on earth had been as fleeting. Under that porch where she had sat, when Heaven, in its mercy, brought her to that peaceful spot, she passed again, and the old church received her in its quiet shade.

St Joseph Herald (Saint Joseph, Michigan) June 25, 1870

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