Chapter 44

The old spot - A long history - Thou shalt not steal - No harm - Education - Necessity - Foam on your lip - Apples and pears - What will you read? - Metaphor - The fur cap - I don’t know him.

IT was past midwinter, and I sat on London Bridge, in company with the old apple-woman: she had just returned to the other side of the bridge, to her place in the booth where I had originally found her. This she had done after frequent conversations with me; ‘she liked the old place best,’ she said, which she would never have left but for the terror which she experienced when the boys ran away with her book. So I sat with her at the old spot, one afternoon past midwinter, reading the book, of which I had by this time come to the last pages. I had observed that the old woman for some time past had shown much less anxiety about the book than she had been in the habit of doing. I was, however, not quite prepared for her offering to make me a present of it, which she did that afternoon; when, having finished it, I returned it to her, with many thanks for the pleasure and instruction I had derived from its perusal. ‘You may keep it, dear,’ said the old woman, with a sigh; ‘you may carry it to your lodging, and keep it for your own.’

Looking at the old woman with surprise, I exclaimed, ‘Is it possible that you are willing to part with the book which has been your source of comfort so long?’

Whereupon the old woman entered into a long history, from which I gathered that the book had become distasteful to her; she hardly ever opened it of late, she said, or if she did, it was only to shut it again; also, that other things which she had been fond of, though of a widely different kind, were now distasteful to her. Porter and beef-steaks were no longer grateful to her palate, her present diet chiefly consisting of tea, and bread and butter.

‘Ah,’ said I, ‘you have been ill, and when people are ill, they seldom like the things which give them pleasure when they are in health.’ I learned, moreover, that she slept little at night, and had all kinds of strange thoughts; that as she lay awake many things connected with her youth, which she had quite forgotten, came into her mind. There were certain words that came into her mind the night before the last, which were continually humming in her ears: I found that the words were, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’

On inquiring where she had first heard these words, I learned that she had read them at school, in a book called the primer; to this school she had been sent by her mother, who was a poor widow, and followed the trade of apple-selling in the very spot where her daughter followed it now. It seems that the mother was a very good kind of woman, but quite ignorant of letters, the benefit of which she was willing to procure for her child; and at the school the daughter learned to read, and subsequently experienced the pleasure and benefit of letters, in being able to read the book which she found in an obscure closet of her mother’s house, and which had been her principal companion and comfort for many years of her life.

But, as I have said before, she was now dissatisfied with the book, and with most other things in which she had taken pleasure; she dwelt much on the words, ‘Thou shalt not steal’; she had never stolen things herself, but then she had bought things which other people had stolen, and which she knew had been stolen; and her dear son had been a thief, which he perhaps would not have been but for the example which she set him in buying things from characters, as she called them, who associated with her.

On inquiring how she had become acquainted with these characters, I learned that times had gone hard with her; that she had married, but her husband had died after a long sickness, which had reduced them to great distress; that her fruit trade was not a profitable one, and that she had bought and sold things which had been stolen to support herself and her son. That for a long time she supposed there was no harm in doing so, as her book was full of entertaining tales of stealing; but she now thought that the book was a bad book, and that learning to read was a bad thing; her mother had never been able to read, but had died in peace, though poor.

So here was a woman who attributed the vices and follies of her life to being able to read; her mother, she said, who could not read, lived respectably, and died in peace; and what was the essential difference between the mother and daughter, save that the latter could read? But for her literature she might in

  By PanEris using Melati.

Previous chapter Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter/page
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.