The Mate of the Daylight
Main Contents & Search
THE CONFESSION OF A HOUSE-BREAKER.
Sarah Orne Jewett
[Except that the paragraphs are numbered, this is the text of "The Confession of a House-Breaker" that appeared anonymously in "The Contributors' Club" column of The Atlantic Monthly (September 1883: 419-422).]
1. This confession differs from that of most criminals who are classed under the same head; for whereas house-breakers usually break into houses, I broke out. It was not a difficult exit, for there was no glass to be broken, nor any occasion for a burglar's tool-box. The truth is that one night, lately, I could not sleep, and when the eastern sky began to show a tinge of light I seated myself by the window; and by the time the clocks and bells of the neighborhood struck three, I became possessed by a desire to go out-of-doors to watch the coming of the June morning, and to see the world before the sun himself, and to hear the matins of the birds from beginning to end, because I had been at best an unpunctual worshiper at this service. An occasional early waking or late falling asleep had given me a fragment of the music; but it was much like the way a foreign tourist saunters idly in at the door of a cathedral while mass is being performed.
2. So after I had leaned out of my eastern window for a few minutes longer, and had heard one sleepy note from the top of an elm not far away, I dressed myself hurriedly, and took my boots in my hand, and prepared to escape. It was no easy matter, for I belong to a household of light sleepers, who are quick to hear an untimely footfall. I stole carefully by the open doors and down the stairs, remembering fearfully that one was apt to creak, and I hardly took a long breath until I found myself out in the garden.
3. It was startlingly dark under the trees, and the alarmed shadows appeared to be hovering there as if to discuss the next move, and to find shelter meanwhile. A bat went by me suddenly, and at that I stood still. I had not thought of bats, and of all creatures they seem most frightful and unearthly, - like the flutter of a ghost's mantle, or even the wave and touch of its hand. A bat by daylight is a harmless, crumpled bit of stupidity; but by night it becomes a creature of mystery and horror, an attendant of the powers of darkness. The white light in the sky grew whiter still, and under the thin foliage of a great willow it seemed less solemn. A bright little waning moon looked down through the slender twigs and fine leaves, - it might have been a new moon watching me through an olive-tree; but I caught the fragrance of the flowers, and went out to the garden. I went back and forth along the walks, and I can never tell any one how beautiful it was. The roses were all in bloom, and presently I could detect the different colors. They were wet with dew, and hung heavy with their weight of perfume; they appeared to be sound asleep yet, and turned their faces away after I had touched them.
4. Some of the flowers were wide awake, however. One never knows the grace and beauty of white petunias until they have been seen at night, or, like this, early in the morning. It is when the dew has fallen that this delicate flower and mignonette also give out their best fragrance; and if one is lucky enough to be able to add the old-fashioned honey-suckle his garden is odorous indeed. Roses need the sunshine to bring out their full beauties, though when I held my face close to the great wet clusters it seemed to me that I had taken all their store of perfume for the coming day in one long, delicious breath. The white flowers looked whiter still in the pale light, and the taller bushes were like draped figures; and suddenly I was reminded, nobody knows why, of a long walk with some friends through the damp avenues of Versailles, when the leaves were beginning to fall, and the garden of the Little Trianon was gay with blossoms. I remembered most vividly how warm the sunshine was upon the terraces; how empty and silent the pathetic holiday rooms; how we strained our eyes to catch sight of the ghosts who must be flitting before us, and trying to keep out of sight, lest one of us might be a seer of spirits, and might intrude upon their peaceful existence. If there were a little noise in the court-yard, I thought it was the merry servants of a hundred years ago, busy with their every-day duties. The scent of the petunias and geraniums and mignonette was filling all the air. We were only stealing in while the tenants of the house were sleeping, or were away in Paris; we had not even a fear or suspicion of the sorry end. It was a strange jumble of reminiscences, personal and historical, that flitted through my mind, as I went walking slowly up and down my own New England garden, among the roses, in the middle of the night.
5. I could not say it was the middle of the night, or still less the dead of night, and have any respect for myself as a truth-teller. It had suddenly become morning. I sat down on one of the garden benches, and watched and listened. A pewee began his side somewhat despairingly and without enthusiasm, and the song-sparrows tried to cheer him, or at least to make him hurry a little. The bobolinks tuned up, and the golden robins; and presently the solos were over, and the grand chorus began. One joyful robin, who had posted himself on the corner of a roof where I could see him, seemed to have constituted himself leader of the choir, and sang and sang, until I feared for his dear life; one would have thought he had reached bird-heaven before his time. It must have been the dawn of a long-looked-for day with him, at any rate, he was so glad to have it come at last. I remembered the young English soldier whom Howells saw at daybreak in Venice, and like him I hoped that I should know in another world how my robin liked the day's pleasure, after all.
6. I became very neighborly with a sober-minded toad, that gave an eager scramble from among the flower-de-luces, and then sat still on the gravel walk, blinking and looking at me, as if he had made plans for sitting on the garden bench, and I was giving him great inconvenience. He was a philosopher, that fellow; he sat and thought about it, and made his theories about me and about the uncertainty of temporal things. I dare say he comes out every morning, and looks up at the bench, and considers his ambitions and the adverse powers that thwart them, in common with many of his fellow creatures.
7. The colors of the world grew brighter and brighter. The outline of the trees, and of some distant fields even, became distinct; yet it was a strange, almost uncanny light, - it was more like looking through clear water, - and I still expected something out of the ordinary course to happen. I was not continuing my thoughts and plans of the day before, though abruptly I became conscious that one of my friends was awake, and an understanding between us sprang up suddenly, like a flame on the altar to Friendship, in my heart. It was pleasant, after all, to have human companionship, and it was difficult to persuade myself that the mysterious telegraph that was between my friend and me measured so many miles. I thought of one and another acquaintance after this, but only the first was awake and watching at that strange hour; the rest slept soundly, and with something approaching clairvoyance that I could see their sleeping faces and their unconsciousness, as I looked into one shaded room after another. How wonderful the courage is which lets us lie down to sleep unquestioningly, night after night, and even wait and wish for it! We have a horror of the drugs that simulate its effect; we think we are violating and tampering with the laws of nature, and make the false sleep a last resource in illness or a sinful self-indulgence. But in the real sleep, what comes to us? What change and restoration and growth to the mind and soul matches the physical zest which does us good and makes us strong? He giveth to his beloved while sleeping, is the true rendering from the Psalms.
8. No wonder that in the early days a thousand follies and fables and legends were based on the dreams and mysteries of sleep. No wonder that we gain confidence to approach the last sleep of all, since we find ourselves alive again morning by morning. And as for the bewildered state into which some of us fall in our later years, is not that like a long darkness and drowsiness, from which the enfeebled mind and body cannot rouse themselves until the brightest of all mornings dawns?
9. The ranks of flowers in my garden took on a great splendor of bloom, as the light grew clearer. After having watched them fade in the grayness of many an evening twilight, it was most lovely to see how the veil was lifted again at daybreak. It seemed as if the quiet June morning ushered in some grand festival day, there were such preparations being made. After the roses, the London pride was most gorgeous to behold, with its brilliant red and its tall, straight stalks. It had a soldierly appearance, as if the flower were out early to keep guard. Twice as many birds as one ever sees in the day-time were scurrying through the air, as though they were late to breakfast, at any rate, and had a crowd of duties to attend to afterward. The grand chorus was over with, though a number of songsters of various kinds kept on with their parts, as if they stayed to practice a while after service, though the rest of the choristers had thrown off their surplices and hurried away.
10. I had a desire to go out farther into the world, and I went some distance up the street, past my neighbors' houses; feeling a sense of guilt and secrecy that could hardly be matched. It had been one thing to walk about my own garden, and even to cross the field at the foot of it to say good-morning to a row of elm-trees and the robins in their tops, of which incident I forgot to speak in its proper place. But if any one had suddenly hailed me from a window I should have been inclined to run home as fast as my feet could carry me. In such fashion are we bound to the conventionalities of existence!
11. But it seemed most wonderful to be awake while everybody slept, and to have the machinery of life apparently set in motion for my benefit alone. The toad had been a comfort, and the thought of my friend even more, if one will believe it; and besides these, I had become very intimate with a poppy, which had made every arrangement to bloom as soon as the sun rose. As I walked farther and farther from home I felt more and more astray, and as if I were taking an unfair advantage of the rest of humanity. In one house I saw a lamp burning, the light of it paling gradually, and my glimpse of the room gave me a feeling of sadness. It was piteous that no one should know that the night was over, and it was day again. It was like the flicker of the lamp at a shrine, - an undying flame that can lighten the darkness neither of death nor of life; a feeble protest against the inevitable night, and the shadows that no man can sweep away.
12. A little child cries drearily in a chamber where the blinds are shut, - a tired wail, as if the night had been one of illness, and the morning brought no relief. A great dog lies sleeping soundly in the yard, as if he would not waken for these three hours yet. I know him well, good fellow, and I have a temptation to speak to him, to see his surprise; and yet I have not a good excuse. He would simply wonder what made the day so long afterward; and I turn towards home again, lest some other house-breaker might go in where I have come out. A belated pewee, who appears to have overslept himself, sets up his morning song all by himself, and the pigeons, who are famous sleepy-heads, begin to coo and croon, as if they are trying to get themselves asleep again. The cocks crow again once or twice apiece all over town, and it is time to go home. The spell of the dawn is lifted; and though I cannot resist leaping the front fence instead of opening the gate for myself, I am a little dismayed afterward at such singular conduct, and take pains to look up and down the street, to make sure there are no startled passers-by.
13. The house is still dark, and it seems hot after the dew and freshness of the out-of-door air; but I draw the bolt carefully, and take off my shoes and steal up-stairs. The east is gorgeous with yellow clouds; the belated pewee is trying to make up for lost time. I hear somebody in the next room give a long sigh, as if of great comfort, and I shut out the dazzling light of the sun, and go to bed again. Presently I hear the mill-bells up and down the river ring out their early call to the tired housekeepers, and I think it is a reluctant rather than a merry peal; and then I say to myself something about to-morrow - no, it is to-day - yes - but this was daylight that was neither to-morrow's nor yesterday's. And so I fall asleep, like all the rest of the world, to wake again some hours later, as much delighted and puzzled with my morning ramble as if it had been a dream.
The Mate of the Daylight
Main Contents & Search