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CHAPTER 58
ABSENCE


It was a long and gloomy night that gathered on me, haunted by the
ghosts of many hopes, of many dear remembrances, many errors, many
unavailing sorrows and regrets.

I went away from England; not knowing, even then, how great the
shock was, that I had to bear. I left all who were dear to me, and
went away; and believed that I had borne it, and it was past. As
a man upon a field of battle will receive a mortal hurt, and
scarcely know that he is struck, so I, when I was left alone with
my undisciplined heart, had no conception of the wound with which
it had to strive.

The knowledge came upon me, not quickly, but little by little, and
grain by grain. The desolate feeling with which I went abroad,
deepened and widened hourly. At first it was a heavy sense of loss
and sorrow, wherein I could distinguish little else. By
imperceptible degrees, it became a hopeless consciousness of all
that I had lost - love, friendship, interest; of all that had been
shattered - my first trust, my first affection, the whole airy
castle of my life; of all that remained - a ruined blank and waste,
lying wide around me, unbroken, to the dark horizon.

If my grief were selfish, I did not know it to be so. I mourned
for my child-wife, taken from her blooming world, so young. I
mourned for him who might have won the love and admiration of
thousands, as he had won mine long ago. I mourned for the broken
heart that had found rest in the stormy sea; and for the wandering
remnants of the simple home, where I had heard the night-wind
blowing, when I was a child.

From the accumulated sadness into which I fell, I had at length no
hope of ever issuing again. I roamed from place to place, carrying
my burden with me everywhere. I felt its whole weight now; and I
drooped beneath it, and I said in my heart that it could never be
lightened.

When this despondency was at its worst, I believed that I should
die. Sometimes, I thought that I would like to die at home; and
actually turned back on my road, that I might get there soon. At
other times, I passed on farther away, -from city to city, seeking
I know not what, and trying to leave I know not what behind.

It is not in my power to retrace, one by one, all the weary phases
of distress of mind through which I passed. There are some dreams
that can only be imperfectly and vaguely described; and when I
oblige myself to look back on this time of my life, I seem to be
recalling such a dream. I see myself passing on among the
novelties of foreign towns, palaces, cathedrals, temples, pictures,
castles, tombs, fantastic streets - the old abiding places of
History and Fancy - as a dreamer might; bearing my painful load
through all, and hardly conscious of the objects as they fade
before me. Listlessness to everything, but brooding sorrow, was
the night that fell on my undisciplined heart. Let me look up from
it - as at last I did, thank Heaven! - and from its long, sad,
wretched dream, to dawn.

For many months I travelled with this ever-darkening cloud upon my
mind. Some blind reasons that I had for not returning home -
reasons then struggling within me, vainly, for more distinct
expression - kept me on my pilgrimage. Sometimes, I had proceeded
restlessly from place to place, stopping nowhere; sometimes, I had
lingered long in one spot. I had had no purpose, no sustaining
soul within me, anywhere.

I was in Switzerland. I had come out of Italy, over one of the
great passes of the Alps, and had since wandered with a guide among
the by-ways of the mountains. If those awful solitudes had spoken
to my heart, I did not know it. I had found sublimity and wonder
in the dread heights and precipices, in the roaring torrents, and
the wastes of ice and snow; but as yet, they had taught me nothing
else.

I came, one evening before sunset, down into a valley, where I was
to rest. In the course of my descent to it, by the winding track
along the mountain-side, from which I saw it shining far below, I
think some long-unwonted sense of beauty and tranquillity, some
softening influence awakened by its peace, moved faintly in my
breast. I remember pausing once, with a kind of sorrow that was
not all oppressive, not quite despairing. I remember almost hoping
that some better change was possible within me.

I came into the valley, as the evening sun was shining on the
remote heights of snow, that closed it in, like eternal clouds.
The bases of the mountains forming the gorge in which the little
village lay, were richly green; and high above this gentler
vegetation, grew forests of dark fir, cleaving the wintry
snow-drift, wedge-like, and stemming the avalanche. Above these,
were range upon range of craggy steeps, grey rock, bright ice, and
smooth verdure-specks of pasture, all gradually blending with the
crowning snow. Dotted here and there on the mountain's-side, each
tiny dot a home, were lonely wooden cottages, so dwarfed by the
towering heights that they appeared too small for toys. So did
even the clustered village in the valley, with its wooden bridge
across the stream, where the stream tumbled over broken rocks, and
roared away among the trees. In the quiet air, there was a sound
of distant singing - shepherd voices; but, as one bright evening
cloud floated midway along the mountain's-side, I could almost have
believed it came from there, and was not earthly music. All at
once, in this serenity, great Nature spoke to me; and soothed me to
lay down my weary head upon the grass, and weep as I had not wept
yet, since Dora died!

I had found a packet of letters awaiting me but a few minutes
before, and had strolled out of the village to read them while my
supper was making ready. Other packets had missed me, and I had
received none for a long time. Beyond a line or two, to say that
I was well, and had arrived at such a place, I had not had
fortitude or constancy to write a letter since I left home.

The packet was in my hand. I opened it, and read the writing of
Agnes.

She was happy and useful, was prospering as she had hoped. That
was all she told me of herself. The rest referred to me.

She gave me no advice; she urged no duty on me; she only told me,
in her own fervent manner, what her trust in me was. She knew (she
said) how such a nature as mine would turn affliction to good. She
knew how trial and emotion would exalt and strengthen it. She was
sure that in my every purpose I should gain a firmer and a higher
tendency, through the grief I had undergone. She, who so gloried
in my fame, and so looked forward to its augmentation, well knew
that I would labour on. She knew that in me, sorrow could not be
weakness, but must be strength. As the endurance of my childish
days had done its part to make me what I was, so greater calamities
would nerve me on, to be yet better than I was; and so, as they had
taught me, would I teach others. She commended me to God, who had
taken my innocent darling to His rest; and in her sisterly
affection cherished me always, and was always at my side go where
I would; proud of what I had done, but infinitely prouder yet of
what I was reserved to do.

I put the letter in my breast, and thought what had I been an hour
ago! When I heard the voices die away, and saw the quiet evening
cloud grow dim, and all the colours in the valley fade, and the
golden snow upon the mountain-tops become a remote part of the pale
night sky, yet felt that the night was passing from my mind, and
all its shadows clearing, there was no name for the love I bore
her, dearer to me, henceforward, than ever until then.

I read her letter many times. I wrote to her before I slept. I
told her that I had been in sore need of her help; that without her
I was not, and I never had been, what she thought me; but that she
inspired me to be that, and I would try.

I did try. In three months more, a year would have passed since
the beginning of my sorrow. I determined to make no resolutions
until the expiration of those three months, but to try. I lived in
that valley, and its neighbourhood, all the time.

The three months gone, I resolved to remain away from home for some
time longer; to settle myself for the present in Switzerland, which
was growing dear to me in the remembrance of that evening; to
resume my pen; to work.

I resorted humbly whither Agnes had commended me; I sought out
Nature, never sought in vain; and I admitted to my breast the human
interest I had lately shrunk from. It was not long, before I had
almost as many friends in the valley as in Yarmouth: and when I
left it, before the winter set in, for Geneva, and came back in the
spring, their cordial greetings had a homely sound to me, although
they were not conveyed in English words.

I worked early and late, patiently and hard. I wrote a Story, with
a purpose growing, not remotely, out of my experience, and sent it
to Traddles, and he arranged for its publication very
advantageously for me; and the tidings of my growing reputation
began to reach me from travellers whom I encountered by chance.
After some rest and change, I fell to work, in my old ardent way,
on a new fancy, which took strong possession of me. As I advanced
in the execution of this task, I felt it more and more, and roused
my utmost energies to do it well. This was my third work of
fiction. It was not half written, when, in an interval of rest, I
thought of returning home.

For a long time, though studying and working patiently, I had
accustomed myself to robust exercise. My health, severely impaired
when I left England, was quite restored. I had seen much. I had
been in many countries, and I hope I had improved my store of
knowledge.

I have now recalled all that I think it needful to recall here, of
this term of absence - with one reservation. I have made it, thus
far, with no purpose of suppressing any of my thoughts; for, as I
have elsewhere said, this narrative is my written memory. I have
desired to keep the most secret current of my mind apart, and to
the last. I enter on it now. I cannot so completely penetrate the
mystery of my own heart, as to know when I began to think that I
might have set its earliest and brightest hopes on Agnes. I cannot
say at what stage of my grief it first became associated with the
reflection, that, in my wayward boyhood, I had thrown away the
treasure of her love. I believe I may have heard some whisper of
that distant thought, in the old unhappy loss or want of something
never to be realized, of which I had been sensible. But the
thought came into my mind as a new reproach and new regret, when I
was left so sad and lonely in the world.

If, at that time, I had been much with her, I should, in the
weakness of my desolation, have betrayed this. It was what I
remotely dreaded when I was first impelled to stay away from
England. I could not have borne to lose the smallest portion of
her sisterly affection; yet, in that betrayal, I should have set a
constraint between us hitherto unknown.

I could not forget that the feeling with which she now regarded me
had grown up in my own free choice and course. That if she had
ever loved me with another love - and I sometimes thought the time
was when she might have done so - I had cast it away. It was
nothing, now, that I had accustomed myself to think of her, when we
were both mere children, as one who was far removed from my wild
fancies. I had bestowed my passionate tenderness upon another
object; and what I might have done, I had not done; and what Agnes
was to me, I and her own noble heart had made her.

In the beginning of the change that gradually worked in me, when I
tried to get a better understanding of myself and be a better man,
I did glance, through some indefinite probation, to a period when
I might possibly hope to cancel the mistaken past, and to be so
blessed as to marry her. But, as time wore on, this shadowy
prospect faded, and departed from me. If she had ever loved me,
then, I should hold her the more sacred; remembering the
confidences I had reposed in her, her knowledge of my errant heart,
the sacrifice she must have made to be my friend and sister, and
the victory she had won. If she had never loved me, could I
believe that she would love me now?

I had always felt my weakness, in comparison with her constancy and
fortitude; and now I felt it more and more. Whatever I might have
been to her, or she to me, if I had been more worthy of her long
ago, I was not now, and she was not. The time was past. I had let
it go by, and had deservedly lost her.

That I suffered much in these contentions, that they filled me with
unhappiness and remorse, and yet that I had a sustaining sense that
it was required of me, in right and honour, to keep away from
myself, with shame, the thought of turning to the dear girl in the
withering of my hopes, from whom I had frivolously turned when they
were bright and fresh - which consideration was at the root of
every thought I had concerning her - is all equally true. I made
no effort to conceal from myself, now, that I loved her, that I was
devoted to her; but I brought the assurance home to myself, that it
was now too late, and that our long-subsisting relation must be
undisturbed.

I had thought, much and often, of my Dora's shadowing out to me
what might have happened, in those years that were destined not to
try us; I had considered how the things that never happen, are
often as much realities to us, in their effects, as those that are
accomplished. The very years she spoke of, were realities now, for
my correction; and would have been, one day, a little later
perhaps, though we had parted in our earliest folly. I endeavoured
to convert what might have been between myself and Agnes, into a
means of making me more self-denying, more resolved, more conscious
of myself, and my defects and errors. Thus, through the reflection
that it might have been, I arrived at the conviction that it could
never be.

These, with their perplexities and inconsistencies, were the
shifting quicksands of my mind, from the time of my departure to
the time of my return home, three years afterwards. Three years
had elapsed since the sailing of the emigrant ship; when, at that
same hour of sunset, and in the same place, I stood on the deck of
the packet vessel that brought me home, looking on the rosy water
where I had seen the image of that ship reflected.

Three years. Long in the aggregate, though short as they went by.
And home was very dear to me, and Agnes too - but she was not mine
- she was never to be mine. She might have been, but that was
past!





David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
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