Little known or celebrated, the following story (an excerpt from Chapter 2 of the antiquarian novel, Master Humphrey’s Clock) will sound profoundly familiar to readers of classic literature, notwithstanding – specifically, American gothic literature; more specifically, Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was, of course, deeply indebted to Dickens for his use of humor, characterization, satire, and atmosphere, and Dickens’ earlier story, “A Madman’s Manuscript,” was an influence on stories about monomania and psychosis like “Berenice,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Black Cat.” But when you read “A Confession Found in Prison” – if you are at all familiar with Poe’s later gothic works – you will be astonished. In it are the undeniable prototypes of “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and most especially – almost outrageously – “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which is a virtual reworking of Dickens’ tale, written a mere three years prior to Poe’s masterpiece (which, by the way, it still very much is – lack of creativity aside).
In the same way that “Tell-Tale” is infused with a pseudo-supernatural power that flushes out a killer’s confession with hot jets of guilt and self-exposure, and in the same way that it explores the interplay between behavioral integrity, psychological multiplicity, and both figurative and literal schizoid psychosis, “The Mother’s Eyes” probes the relationship between the spirit of a man – the id and superego that battle for dominance – and his actions – sin and repentance, perversity and piety, concealment and confession.
The story, which takes the form of a written confession found in a prison, is set during the reign of Charles II and comes to us from a convicted murderer writing on the eve of his execution. He was an Army veteran who had been living off of his wife’s estate when the events that led to his crime took place. Shortly after returning from war, his only brother – a handsome, likable man of whom he was very jealous – took sick and died.
His late sister-in-law (who is also his wife’s sister) had died in childbirth four years ago, and that boy, their only son, is now to be his ward. He recalls how distinctly he hated his brother’s judgmental wife – instinctively and inexplicably. It came from a sense that she could read his thoughts and that she was always silently disapproving of him with her steely eyes:
“It was an inexpressible relief to me when we quarrelled, and a greater relief still when I heard abroad that she was dead. It seems to me now as if some strange and terrible foreshadowing of what has happened since must have hung over us then. I was afraid of her; she haunted me; her fixed and steady look comes back upon me now, like the memory of a dark dream, and makes my blood run cold.”
Since they had no children of their own, the narrator's wife was more than happy to raise her orphaned nephew. Her husband is less thrilled: upon meeting him for the first time he is immediately disturbed by the child, who has inherited his mother's knack for seeming to always be aware when the narrator is thinking some indiscreet thought, giving him knowing glances without a prompt. What’s more, he seems to have inherited his mother’s eyes exactly, and their watchful stare gradually enrages the narrator, who had hoped that in death he may have freed himself from a sister-in-law he considered a persecuting scold.
For his part, the boy fears and hates his uncle, and with good reason, for although the narrator insists that originally he had no desire to kill his ward, “by very slow degrees, presenting itself at first in dim shapes at a very great distance, as men may think of an earthquake or the last day; then drawing nearer and nearer, and losing something of its horror and improbability; then coming to be part and parcel - nay nearly the whole sum and substance - of my daily thoughts, and resolving itself into a question of means and safety; not of doing or abstaining from the deed.”
Eventually, enraged by the sight of the boy’s convicting eyes, the narrator relishes the thought of killing his nephew, and ponders how easily the frail child could be done in. Soon he takes to lurking outside his bedroom, and eventually decides on a method: he carves a toy boat and leaves it in a place where he knows the boy will find it. Indeed, his nephew notices the toy and takes it to bed with him that night.
Knowing that he will eventually take the boat to the stream to float it, the uncle stakes out his favorite spot on the shore, from noon to nightfall for three whole days, during which time he brags of having “felt no weariness or fatigue … wait[ing] patiently.” On the third day, he hears the boy coming down the lane, lisping a nursery rhyme. He follows him to the shore and is about to throw him in the water when the boy, noticing the tall shadow, turns around and catches him with his gaze: “his mother’s ghost was looking at me from his eyes.” In that moment, as if in a psychedelic trance, he feels that there were eyes in all of nature – in the sparkling water, the raindrops on the leaves, and the sun-pierced clouds: “There were eyes in everything. The whole great universe of light was there to see the murder done.”
Desperate to be done with it, he ditches the drowning plan and stabs the boy to death with his sword. Now that the deed has been accomplished, he shifts to hiding his actions. He buries the boy in their garden and sends search parties out to locate him, putting on a great show of anxiety and sorrow. He consoles his horrified wife and fakes optimism at his recovery.
Meanwhile, his mind is becoming overwhelmed with paranoia at being discovered. The garden is just outside their bedroom window, and he watches the spot obsessively, tormented by dreams of body parts poking through the tilled soil, or even of the boy bursting out of the earth altogether, having been buried alive.
He is horrified anytime a servant crosses the field or a bird lands on the spot, and watches it unceasingly for three days. On the fourth day he is visited by an Army friend who had served with him overseas, and another soldier whom he had never met. Terrified of being uncovered, he sits three chairs over the grave and they wine and dine on top of the body.
Although they don’t ask, he rapidly acquaints them with the known facts of the disappearance and loudly argues why he couldn’t have been murdered because there is no motive for murdering a poor orphan boy (even though no one had suggested that he was murdered).
His friend seems to take his side, but the other officer looks down at the ground in thought during his ramblings.
Suddenly, two blood hounds – having run away from their keeper – bound into the garden and become distracted by a scent. The two guests wave them off as having been drawn by some prey which must have come that way earlier, but as they hover around the narrator’s chair, worrying at the ground that entombs his nephew, he can no longer control himself: he refuses to get up and desperately shields the ground from the dogs despite his guests’ urging to stand up and get out of their way for his own safety.
Before the dogs can tear him apart, the stranger declares that he has had enough: “there is some foul mystery here,” he shouts to his friend, and the two restrain their host and carry him away from the garden. The dogs make short work of the grave, and he falls on his knees and confesses to the deed “with chattering teeth.”
He is tried, found guilty, and condemned, and his only consolation, as he writes this last letter on the night before his death, is that his wife went hopelessly insane on hearing the truth, so that, “happily” she has lost the reason needed “to know my misery or hers.”
Although it lacks the sheer gruesomeness of the more indulgent “Madman’s MS.,” this later, more disciplined tale is a very clear and obvious return to the themes which hound all of Dickens’ very best supernatural tales: the struggle between corruption and virtue, the moral corrosion of society, the selfish chaos of human hearts, and the threatening hint of a universe without heroes or redemption – one more composed of cosmic questions than providential responses, one toyingly managed by Fate alone.
Although the criminal who wrote this “Confession” is captured and – like the killers in “Madman’s MS.,” “The Hanged Man’s Bride,” and “The Trial for Murder” – will suffer under the rules of society, but the spiritual problem of his murder is never solved, never entirely understood, never as exposed and apparent as the rotting corpse that the bloodhounds so inescapably brought to human attention. The protagonist will pay with the destruction of his body for a sin bred in his soul, a soul which will ostensibly escape exposure: unlike his flesh, which will be wrung to death on a gibbet, his spirit and the motives for his murder flee into the obscurity of a dark and sinister universe.
These themes are being slowly stropped in “Madman’s MS.” and “Mother’s Eyes,” and will arrive at a keen, cutthroat edge by the time we dip into Dickens’ three supernatural masterpieces – stories which dwell unwaveringly with the darkness that so evidently lurks behind our great societies and progress and wealth: cheap facades that distract us from a cosmos teeming with moral confusion and existential turmoil: To Be Read at Dusk, The Trial for Murder, and The Signal-Man.