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The Old Curiosity Shop

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CHAPTER 51

The bland and open-hearted proprietor of Bachelor’s Hall slept on amidst the congenial accompaniments of rain, mud, dirt, damp, fog, and rats, until late in the day; when, summoning his valet Tom Scott to assist him to rise, and to prepare breakfast, he quitted his couch, and made his toilet. This duty performed, and his repast ended, he again betook himself to Bevis Marks.

This visit was not intended for Mr Swiveller, but for his friend and employer Mr Sampson Brass. Both gentlemen however were from home, nor was the life and light of law, Miss Sally, at her post either. The fact of their joint desertion of the office was made known to all comers by a scrap of paper in the hand-writing of Mr Swiveller, which was attached to the bell-handle, and which, giving the reader no clue to the time of day when it was first posted, furnished him with the rather vague and unsatisfactory information that that gentleman would ‘return in an hour.’

‘There’s a servant, I suppose,’ said the dwarf, knocking at the house-door. ‘She’ll do.’

After a sufficiently long interval, the door was opened, and a small voice immediately accosted him with, ‘Oh please will you leave a card or message?’

‘Eh?’ said the dwarf, looking down, (it was something quite new to him) upon the small servant.

To this, the child, conducting her conversation as upon the occasion of her first interview with Mr Swiveller, again replied, ‘Oh please will you leave a card or message?’

‘I’ll write a note,’ said the dwarf, pushing past her into the office; ‘and mind your master has it directly he comes home.’ So Mr Quilp climbed up to the top of a tall stool to write the note, and the small servant, carefully tutored for such emergencies, looked on with her eyes wide open, ready, if he so much as abstracted a wafer, to rush into the street and give the alarm to the police.

As Mr Quilp folded his note (which was soon written: being a very short one) he encountered the gaze of the small servant. He looked at her, long and earnestly.

‘How are you?’ said the dwarf, moistening a wafer with horrible grimaces.

The small servant, perhaps frightened by his looks, returned no audible reply; but it appeared from the motion of her lips that she was inwardly repeating the same form of expression concerning the note or message.

‘Do they use you ill here? is your mistress a Tartar?’ said Quilp with a chuckle.

In reply to the last interrogation, the small servant, with a look of infinite cunning mingled with fear, screwed up her mouth very tight and round, and nodded violently. Whether there was anything in the peculiar slyness of her action which fascinated Mr Quilp, or anything in the expression of her features at the moment which attracted his attention for some other reason; or whether it merely occurred to him as a pleasant whim to stare the small servant out of countenance; certain it is, that he planted his elbows square and firmly on the desk, and squeezing up his cheeks with his hands, looked at her fixedly.

‘Where do you come from?’ he said after a long pause, stroking his chin.

‘I don’t know.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Nonsense!’ retorted Quilp. ‘What does your mistress call you when she wants you?’

‘A little devil,’ said the child.

She added in the same breath, as if fearful of any further questioning, ‘But please will you leave a card or message?’

These unusual answers might naturally have provoked some more inquiries. Quilp, however, without uttering another word, withdrew his eyes from the small servant, stroked his chin more thoughtfully than before, and then, bending over the note as if to direct it with scrupulous and hair-breadth nicety, looked at her, covertly but very narrowly, from under his bushy eyebrows. The result of this secret survey was, that he shaded his face with his hands, and laughed slyly and noiselessly, until every vein in it was swollen almost to bursting. Pulling his hat over his brow to conceal his mirth and its effects, he tossed the letter to the child, and hastily withdrew.

Once in the street, moved by some secret impulse, he laughed, and held his sides, and laughed again, and tried to peer through the dusty area railings as if to catch another glimpse of the child, until he was quite tired out. At last, he travelled back to the Wilderness, which was within rifle-shot of his bachelor retreat, and ordered tea in the wooden summer-house that afternoon for three persons; an invitation to Miss Sally Brass and her brother to partake of that entertainment at that place, having been the object both of his journey and his note.

It was not precisely the kind of weather in which people usually take tea in summer-houses, far less in summer-houses in an advanced state of decay, and overlooking the slimy banks of a great river at low water. Nevertheless, it was in this choice retreat that Mr Quilp ordered a cold collation to be prepared, and it was beneath its cracked and leaky roof that he, in due course of time, received Mr Sampson and his sister Sally.

‘You’re fond of the beauties of nature,’ said Quilp with a grin. ‘Is this charming, Brass? Is it unusual, unsophisticated, primitive?’

‘It’s delightful indeed, sir,’ replied the lawyer.

‘Cool?’ said Quilp.

‘N-not particularly so, I think, sir,’ rejoined Brass, with his teeth chattering in his head.

‘Perhaps a little damp and ague-ish?’ said Quilp.

‘Just damp enough to be cheerful, sir,’ rejoined Brass. ‘Nothing more, sir, nothing more.’

‘And Sally?’ said the delighted dwarf. ‘Does she like it?’

‘She’ll like it better,’ returned that strong-minded lady, ‘when she has tea; so let us have it, and don’t bother.’

‘Sweet Sally!’ cried Quilp, extending his arms as if about to embrace her. ‘Gentle, charming, overwhelming Sally.’

‘He’s a very remarkable man indeed!’ soliloquised Mr Brass. ‘He’s quite a Troubadour, you know; quite a Troubadour!’

These complimentary expressions were uttered in a somewhat absent and distracted manner; for the unfortunate lawyer, besides having a bad cold in his head, had got wet in coming, and would have willingly borne some pecuniary sacrifice if he could have shifted his present raw quarters to a warm room, and dried himself at a fire. Quilp, however—who, beyond the gratification of his demon whims, owed Sampson some acknowledgment of the part he had played in the mourning scene of which he had been a hidden witness, marked these symptoms of uneasiness with a delight past all expression, and derived from them a secret joy which the costliest banquet could never have afforded him.

It is worthy of remark, too, as illustrating a little feature in the character of Miss Sally Brass, that, although on her own account she would have borne the discomforts of the Wilderness with a very ill grace, and would probably, indeed, have walked off before the tea appeared, she no sooner beheld the latent uneasiness and misery of her brother than she developed a grim satisfaction, and began to enjoy herself after her own manner. Though the wet came stealing through the roof and trickling down upon their heads, Miss Brass uttered no complaint, but presided over the tea equipage with imperturbable composure. While Mr Quilp, in his uproarious hospitality, seated himself upon an empty beer-barrel, vaunted the place as the most beautiful and comfortable in the three kingdoms, and elevating his glass, drank to their next merry-meeting in that jovial spot; and Mr Brass, with the rain plashing down into his tea-cup, made a dismal attempt to pluck up his spirits and appear at his ease; and Tom Scott, who was in waiting at the door under an old umbrella, exulted in his agonies, and bade fair to split his sides with laughing; while all this was passing, Miss Sally Brass, unmindful of the wet which dripped down upon her own feminine person and fair apparel, sat placidly behind the tea-board, erect and grizzly, contemplating the unhappiness of her brother with a mind at ease, and content, in her amiable disregard of self, to sit there all night, witnessing the torments which his avaricious and grovelling nature compelled him to endure and forbade him to resent. And this, it must be observed, or the illustration would be incomplete, although in a business point of view she had the strongest sympathy with Mr Sampson, and would have been beyond measure indignant if he had thwarted their client in any one respect.

In the height of his boisterous merriment, Mr Quilp, having on some pretence dismissed his attendant sprite for the moment, resumed his usual manner all at once, dismounted from his cask, and laid his hand upon the lawyer’s sleeve.

‘A word,’ said the dwarf, ‘before we go farther. Sally, hark’ee for a minute.’

Miss Sally drew closer, as if accustomed to business conferences with their host which were the better for not having air.

‘Business,’ said the dwarf, glancing from brother to sister. ‘Very private business. Lay your heads together when you’re by yourselves.’

‘Certainly, sir,’ returned Brass, taking out his pocket-book and pencil. ‘I’ll take down the heads if you please, sir. Remarkable documents,’ added the lawyer, raising his eyes to the ceiling, ‘most remarkable documents. He states his points so clearly that it’s a treat to have ‘em! I don’t know any act of parliament that’s equal to him in clearness.’

‘I shall deprive you of a treat,’ said Quilp. ‘Put up your book. We don’t want any documents. So. There’s a lad named Kit—’

Miss Sally nodded, implying that she knew of him.

‘Kit!’ said Mr Sampson.—‘Kit! Ha! I’ve heard the name before, but I don’t exactly call to mind—I don’t exactly—’

‘You’re as slow as a tortoise, and more thick-headed than a rhinoceros,’ returned his obliging client with an impatient gesture.

‘He’s extremely pleasant!’ cried the obsequious Sampson. ‘His acquaintance with Natural History too is surprising. Quite a Buffoon, quite!’

There is no doubt that Mr Brass intended some compliment or other; and it has been argued with show of reason that he would have said Buffon, but made use of a superfluous vowel. Be this as it may, Quilp gave him no time for correction, as he performed that office himself by more than tapping him on the head with the handle of his umbrella.

‘Don’t let’s have any wrangling,’ said Miss Sally, staying his hand. ‘I’ve showed you that I know him, and that’s enough.’

‘She’s always foremost!’ said the dwarf, patting her on the back and looking contemptuously at Sampson. ‘I don’t like Kit, Sally.’

‘Nor I,’ rejoined Miss Brass.

‘Nor I,’ said Sampson.

‘Why, that’s right!’ cried Quilp. ‘Half our work is done already. This Kit is one of your honest people; one of your fair characters; a prowling prying hound; a hypocrite; a double-faced, white-livered, sneaking spy; a crouching cur to those that feed and coax him, and a barking yelping dog to all besides.’

‘Fearfully eloquent!’ cried Brass with a sneeze. ‘Quite appalling!’

‘Come to the point,’ said Miss Sally, ‘and don’t talk so much.’

‘Right again!’ exclaimed Quilp, with another contemptuous look at Sampson, ‘always foremost! I say, Sally, he is a yelping, insolent dog to all besides, and most of all, to me. In short, I owe him a grudge.’ ‘That’s enough, sir,’ said Sampson.

‘No, it’s not enough, sir,’ sneered Quilp; ‘will you hear me out? Besides that I owe him a grudge on that account, he thwarts me at this minute, and stands between me and an end which might otherwise prove a golden one to us all. Apart from that, I repeat that he crosses my humour, and I hate him. Now, you know the lad, and can guess the rest. Devise your own means of putting him out of my way, and execute them. Shall it be done?’

‘It shall, sir,’ said Sampson.

‘Then give me your hand,’ retorted Quilp. ‘Sally, girl, yours. I rely as much, or more, on you than him. Tom Scott comes back. Lantern, pipes, more grog, and a jolly night of it!’

No other word was spoken, no other look exchanged, which had the slightest reference to this, the real occasion of their meeting. The trio were well accustomed to act together, and were linked to each other by ties of mutual interest and advantage, and nothing more was needed. Resuming his boisterous manner with the same ease with which he had thrown it off, Quilp was in an instant the same uproarious, reckless little savage he had been a few seconds before. It was ten o’clock at night before the amiable Sally supported her beloved and loving brother from the Wilderness, by which time he needed the utmost support her tender frame could render; his walk being from some unknown reason anything but steady, and his legs constantly doubling up in unexpected places.

Overpowered, notwithstanding his late prolonged slumbers, by the fatigues of the last few days, the dwarf lost no time in creeping to his dainty house, and was soon dreaming in his hammock. Leaving him to visions, in which perhaps the quiet figures we quitted in the old church porch were not without their share, be it our task to rejoin them as they sat and watched.





CHAPTER 52

After a long time, the schoolmaster appeared at the wicket-gate of the churchyard, and hurried towards them, tingling in his hand, as he came along, a bundle of rusty keys. He was quite breathless with pleasure and haste when he reached the porch, and at first could only point towards the old building which the child had been contemplating so earnestly.

‘You see those two old houses,’ he said at last.

‘Yes, surely,’ replied Nell. ‘I have been looking at them nearly all the time you have been away.’

‘And you would have looked at them more curiously yet, if you could have guessed what I have to tell you,’ said her friend. ‘One of those houses is mine.’

Without saying any more, or giving the child time to reply, the schoolmaster took her hand, and, his honest face quite radiant with exultation, led her to the place of which he spoke.

They stopped before its low arched door. After trying several of the keys in vain, the schoolmaster found one to fit the huge lock, which turned back, creaking, and admitted them into the house.

The room into which they entered was a vaulted chamber once nobly ornamented by cunning architects, and still retaining, in its beautiful groined roof and rich stone tracery, choice remnants of its ancient splendour. Foliage carved in the stone, and emulating the mastery of Nature’s hand, yet remained to tell how many times the leaves outside had come and gone, while it lived on unchanged. The broken figures supporting the burden of the chimney-piece, though mutilated, were still distinguishable for what they had been—far different from the dust without—and showed sadly by the empty hearth, like creatures who had outlived their kind, and mourned their own too slow decay.

In some old time—for even change was old in that old place—a wooden partition had been constructed in one part of the chamber to form a sleeping-closet, into which the light was admitted at the same period by a rude window, or rather niche, cut in the solid wall. This screen, together with two seats in the broad chimney, had at some forgotten date been part of the church or convent; for the oak, hastily appropriated to its present purpose, had been little altered from its former shape, and presented to the eye a pile of fragments of rich carving from old monkish stalls.

An open door leading to a small room or cell, dim with the light that came through leaves of ivy, completed the interior of this portion of the ruin. It was not quite destitute of furniture. A few strange chairs, whose arms and legs looked as though they had dwindled away with age; a table, the very spectre of its race: a great old chest that had once held records in the church, with other quaintly-fashioned domestic necessaries, and store of fire-wood for the winter, were scattered around, and gave evident tokens of its occupation as a dwelling-place at no very distant time.

The child looked around her, with that solemn feeling with which we contemplate the work of ages that have become but drops of water in the great ocean of eternity. The old man had followed them, but they were all three hushed for a space, and drew their breath softly, as if they feared to break the silence even by so slight a sound.

‘It is a very beautiful place!’ said the child, in a low voice.

‘I almost feared you thought otherwise,’ returned the schoolmaster. ‘You shivered when we first came in, as if you felt it cold or gloomy.’

‘It was not that,’ said Nell, glancing round with a slight shudder. ‘Indeed I cannot tell you what it was, but when I saw the outside, from the church porch, the same feeling came over me. It is its being so old and grey perhaps.’

‘A peaceful place to live in, don’t you think so?’ said her friend.

‘Oh yes,’ rejoined the child, clasping her hands earnestly. ‘A quiet, happy place—a place to live and learn to die in!’ She would have said more, but that the energy of her thoughts caused her voice to falter, and come in trembling whispers from her lips.


‘A place to live, and learn to live, and gather health of mind and body in,’ said the schoolmaster; ‘for this old house is yours.’

‘Ours!’ cried the child.

‘Ay,’ returned the schoolmaster gaily, ‘for many a merry year to come, I hope. I shall be a close neighbour—only next door—but this house is yours.’

Having now disburdened himself of his great surprise, the schoolmaster sat down, and drawing Nell to his side, told her how he had learnt that ancient tenement had been occupied for a very long time by an old person, nearly a hundred years of age, who kept the keys of the church, opened and closed it for the services, and showed it to strangers; how she had died not many weeks ago, and nobody had yet been found to fill the office; how, learning all this in an interview with the sexton, who was confined to his bed by rheumatism, he had been bold to make mention of his fellow-traveller, which had been so favourably received by that high authority, that he had taken courage, acting on his advice, to propound the matter to the clergyman. In a word, the result of his exertions was, that Nell and her grandfather were to be carried before the last-named gentleman next day; and, his approval of their conduct and appearance reserved as a matter of form, that they were already appointed to the vacant post.

‘There’s a small allowance of money,’ said the schoolmaster. ‘It is not much, but still enough to live upon in this retired spot. By clubbing our funds together, we shall do bravely; no fear of that.’

‘Heaven bless and prosper you!’ sobbed the child.

‘Amen, my dear,’ returned her friend cheerfully; ‘and all of us, as it will, and has, in leading us through sorrow and trouble to this tranquil life. But we must look at my house now. Come!’

They repaired to the other tenement; tried the rusty keys as before; at length found the right one; and opened the worm-eaten door. It led into a chamber, vaulted and old, like that from which they had come, but not so spacious, and having only one other little room attached. It was not difficult to divine that the other house was of right the schoolmaster’s, and that he had chosen for himself the least commodious, in his care and regard for them. Like the adjoining habitation, it held such old articles of furniture as were absolutely necessary, and had its stack of fire-wood.

To make these dwellings as habitable and full of comfort as they could, was now their pleasant care. In a short time, each had its cheerful fire glowing and crackling on the hearth, and reddening the pale old wall with a hale and healthy blush. Nell, busily plying her needle, repaired the tattered window-hangings, drew together the rents that time had worn in the threadbare scraps of carpet, and made them whole and decent. The schoolmaster swept and smoothed the ground before the door, trimmed the long grass, trained the ivy and creeping plants which hung their drooping heads in melancholy neglect; and gave to the outer walls a cheery air of home. The old man, sometimes by his side and sometimes with the child, lent his aid to both, went here and there on little patient services, and was happy. Neighbours, too, as they came from work, proffered their help; or sent their children with such small presents or loans as the strangers needed most. It was a busy day; and night came on, and found them wondering that there was yet so much to do, and that it should be dark so soon.

They took their supper together, in the house which may be henceforth called the child’s; and, when they had finished their meal, drew round the fire, and almost in whispers—their hearts were too quiet and glad for loud expression—discussed their future plans. Before they separated, the schoolmaster read some prayers aloud; and then, full of gratitude and happiness, they parted for the night.

At that silent hour, when her grandfather was sleeping peacefully in his bed, and every sound was hushed, the child lingered before the dying embers, and thought of her past fortunes as if they had been a dream And she only now awoke. The glare of the sinking flame, reflected in the oaken panels whose carved tops were dimly seen in the dusky roof—the aged walls, where strange shadows came and went with every flickering of the fire—the solemn presence, within, of that decay which falls on senseless things the most enduring in their nature: and, without, and round about on every side, of Death—filled her with deep and thoughtful feelings, but with none of terror or alarm. A change had been gradually stealing over her, in the time of her loneliness and sorrow. With failing strength and heightening resolution, there had sprung up a purified and altered mind; there had grown in her bosom blessed thoughts and hopes, which are the portion of few but the weak and drooping. There were none to see the frail, perishable figure, as it glided from the fire and leaned pensively at the open casement; none but the stars, to look into the upturned face and read its history. The old church bell rang out the hour with a mournful sound, as if it had grown sad from so much communing with the dead and unheeded warning to the living; the fallen leaves rustled; the grass stirred upon the graves; all else was still and sleeping.

Some of those dreamless sleepers lay close within the shadow of the church—touching the wall, as if they clung to it for comfort and protection. Others had chosen to lie beneath the changing shade of trees; others by the path, that footsteps might come near them; others, among the graves of little children. Some had desired to rest beneath the very ground they had trodden in their daily walks; some, where the setting sun might shine upon their beds; some, where its light would fall upon them when it rose. Perhaps not one of the imprisoned souls had been able quite to separate itself in living thought from its old companion. If any had, it had still felt for it a love like that which captives have been known to bear towards the cell in which they have been long confined, and, even at parting, hung upon its narrow bounds affectionately.

It was long before the child closed the window, and approached her bed. Again something of the same sensation as before—an involuntary chill—a momentary feeling akin to fear—but vanishing directly, and leaving no alarm behind. Again, too, dreams of the little scholar; of the roof opening, and a column of bright faces, rising far away into the sky, as she had seen in some old scriptural picture once, and looking down on her, asleep. It was a sweet and happy dream. The quiet spot, outside, seemed to remain the same, saving that there was music in the air, and a sound of angels’ wings. After a time the sisters came there, hand in hand, and stood among the graves. And then the dream grew dim, and faded.

With the brightness and joy of morning, came the renewal of yesterday’s labours, the revival of its pleasant thoughts, the restoration of its energies, cheerfulness, and hope. They worked gaily in ordering and arranging their houses until noon, and then went to visit the clergyman.

He was a simple-hearted old gentleman, of a shrinking, subdued spirit, accustomed to retirement, and very little acquainted with the world, which he had left many years before to come and settle in that place. His wife had died in the house in which he still lived, and he had long since lost sight of any earthly cares or hopes beyond it.

He received them very kindly, and at once showed an interest in Nell; asking her name, and age, her birthplace, the circumstances which had led her there, and so forth. The schoolmaster had already told her story. They had no other friends or home to leave, he said, and had come to share his fortunes. He loved the child as though she were his own.

‘Well, well,’ said the clergyman. ‘Let it be as you desire. She is very young.’

'Old in adversity and trial, sir,’ replied the schoolmaster.

‘God help her. Let her rest, and forget them,’ said the old gentleman. ‘But an old church is a dull and gloomy place for one so young as you, my child.’

‘Oh no, sir,’ returned Nell. ‘I have no such thoughts, indeed.’

‘I would rather see her dancing on the green at nights,’ said the old gentleman, laying his hand upon her head, and smiling sadly, ‘than have her sitting in the shadow of our mouldering arches. You must look to this, and see that her heart does not grow heavy among these solemn ruins. Your request is granted, friend.’

After more kind words, they withdrew, and repaired to the child’s house; where they were yet in conversation on their happy fortune, when another friend appeared.

This was a little old gentleman, who lived in the parsonage-house, and had resided there (so they learnt soon afterwards) ever since the death of the clergyman’s wife, which had happened fifteen years before. He had been his college friend and always his close companion; in the first shock of his grief he had come to console and comfort him; and from that time they had never parted company. The little old gentleman was the active spirit of the place, the adjuster of all differences, the promoter of all merry-makings, the dispenser of his friend’s bounty, and of no small charity of his own besides; the universal mediator, comforter, and friend. None of the simple villagers had cared to ask his name, or, when they knew it, to store it in their memory. Perhaps from some vague rumour of his college honours which had been whispered abroad on his first arrival, perhaps because he was an unmarried, unencumbered gentleman, he had been called the bachelor. The name pleased him, or suited him as well as any other, and the Bachelor he had ever since remained. And the bachelor it was, it may be added, who with his own hands had laid in the stock of fuel which the wanderers had found in their new habitation.

The bachelor, then—to call him by his usual appellation—lifted the latch, showed his little round mild face for a moment at the door, and stepped into the room like one who was no stranger to it.

‘You are Mr Marton, the new schoolmaster?’ he said, greeting Nell’s kind friend.

‘I am, sir.’

‘You come well recommended, and I am glad to see you. I should have been in the way yesterday, expecting you, but I rode across the country to carry a message from a sick mother to her daughter in service some miles off, and have but just now returned. This is our young church-keeper? You are not the less welcome, friend, for her sake, or for this old man’s; nor the worse teacher for having learnt humanity.’ ‘She has been ill, sir, very lately,’ said the schoolmaster, in answer to the look with which their visitor regarded Nell when he had kissed her cheek.

‘Yes, yes. I know she has,’ he rejoined. ‘There have been suffering and heartache here.’

‘Indeed there have, sir.’

The little old gentleman glanced at the grandfather, and back again at the child, whose hand he took tenderly in his, and held.

‘You will be happier here,’ he said; ‘we will try, at least, to make you so. You have made great improvements here already. Are they the work of your hands?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘We may make some others—not better in themselves, but with better means perhaps,’ said the bachelor. ‘Let us see now, let us see.’

Nell accompanied him into the other little rooms, and over both the houses, in which he found various small comforts wanting, which he engaged to supply from a certain collection of odds and ends he had at home, and which must have been a very miscellaneous and extensive one, as it comprehended the most opposite articles imaginable. They all came, however, and came without loss of time; for the little old gentleman, disappearing for some five or ten minutes, presently returned, laden with old shelves, rugs, blankets, and other household gear, and followed by a boy bearing a similar load. These being cast on the floor in a promiscuous heap, yielded a quantity of occupation in arranging, erecting, and putting away; the superintendence of which task evidently afforded the old gentleman extreme delight, and engaged him for some time with great briskness and activity. When nothing more was left to be done, he charged the boy to run off and bring his schoolmates to be marshalled before their new master, and solemnly reviewed.

‘As good a set of fellows, Marton, as you’d wish to see,’ he said, turning to the schoolmaster when the boy was gone; ‘but I don’t let ‘em know I think so. That wouldn’t do, at all.’

The messenger soon returned at the head of a long row of urchins, great and small, who, being confronted by the bachelor at the house door, fell into various convulsions of politeness; clutching their hats and caps, squeezing them into the smallest possible dimensions, and making all manner of bows and scrapes, which the little old gentleman contemplated with excessive satisfaction, and expressed his approval of by a great many nods and smiles. Indeed, his approbation of the boys was by no means so scrupulously disguised as he had led the schoolmaster to suppose, inasmuch as it broke out in sundry loud whispers and confidential remarks which were perfectly audible to them every one.

'This first boy, schoolmaster,’ said the bachelor, ‘is John Owen; a lad of good parts, sir, and frank, honest temper; but too thoughtless, too playful, too light-headed by far. That boy, my good sir, would break his neck with pleasure, and deprive his parents of their chief comfort—and between ourselves, when you come to see him at hare and hounds, taking the fence and ditch by the finger-post, and sliding down the face of the little quarry, you’ll never forget it. It’s beautiful!’

John Owen having been thus rebuked, and being in perfect possession of the speech aside, the bachelor singled out another boy.

‘Now, look at that lad, sir,’ said the bachelor. ‘You see that fellow? Richard Evans his name is, sir. An amazing boy to learn, blessed with a good memory, and a ready understanding, and moreover with a good voice and ear for psalm-singing, in which he is the best among us. Yet, sir, that boy will come to a bad end; he’ll never die in his bed; he’s always falling asleep in sermon-time—and to tell you the truth, Mr Marton, I always did the same at his age, and feel quite certain that it was natural to my constitution and I couldn’t help it.’

This hopeful pupil edified by the above terrible reproval, the bachelor turned to another.

‘But if we talk of examples to be shunned,’ said he, ‘if we come to boys that should be a warning and a beacon to all their fellows, here’s the one, and I hope you won’t spare him. This is the lad, sir; this one with the blue eyes and light hair. This is a swimmer, sir, this fellow—a diver, Lord save us! This is a boy, sir, who had a fancy for plunging into eighteen feet of water, with his clothes on, and bringing up a blind man’s dog, who was being drowned by the weight of his chain and collar, while his master stood wringing his hands upon the bank, bewailing the loss of his guide and friend. I sent the boy two guineas anonymously, sir,’ added the bachelor, in his peculiar whisper, ‘directly I heard of it; but never mention it on any account, for he hasn’t the least idea that it came from me.’

Having disposed of this culprit, the bachelor turned to another, and from him to another, and so on through the whole array, laying, for their wholesome restriction within due bounds, the same cutting emphasis on such of their propensities as were dearest to his heart and were unquestionably referrable to his own precept and example. Thoroughly persuaded, in the end, that he had made them miserable by his severity, he dismissed them with a small present, and an admonition to walk quietly home, without any leapings, scufflings, or turnings out of the way; which injunction, he informed the schoolmaster in the same audible confidence, he did not think he could have obeyed when he was a boy, had his life depended on it.

Hailing these little tokens of the bachelor’s disposition as so many assurances of his own welcome course from that time, the schoolmaster parted from him with a light heart and joyous spirits, and deemed himself one of the happiest men on earth. The windows of the two old houses were ruddy again, that night, with the reflection of the cheerful fires that burnt within; and the bachelor and his friend, pausing to look upon them as they returned from their evening walk, spoke softly together of the beautiful child, and looked round upon the churchyard with a sigh.





CHAPTER 53

Nell was stirring early in the morning, and having discharged her household tasks, and put everything in order for the good schoolmaster (though sorely against his will, for he would have spared her the pains), took down, from its nail by the fireside, a little bundle of keys with which the bachelor had formally invested her on the previous day, and went out alone to visit the old church.

The sky was serene and bright, the air clear, perfumed with the fresh scent of newly fallen leaves, and grateful to every sense. The neighbouring stream sparkled, and rolled onward with a tuneful sound; the dew glistened on the green mounds, like tears shed by Good Spirits over the dead. Some young children sported among the tombs, and hid from each other, with laughing faces. They had an infant with them, and had laid it down asleep upon a child’s grave, in a little bed of leaves. It was a new grave—the resting-place, perhaps, of some little creature, who, meek and patient in its illness, had often sat and watched them, and now seemed, to their minds, scarcely changed.

She drew near and asked one of them whose grave it was. The child answered that that was not its name; it was a garden—his brother’s. It was greener, he said, than all the other gardens, and the birds loved it better because he had been used to feed them. When he had done speaking, he looked at her with a smile, and kneeling down and nestling for a moment with his cheek against the turf, bounded merrily away.

She passed the church, gazing upward at its old tower, went through the wicket gate, and so into the village. The old sexton, leaning on a crutch, was taking the air at his cottage door, and gave her good morrow.

‘You are better?’ said the child, stopping to speak with him.

‘Ay surely,’ returned the old man. ‘I’m thankful to say, much better.’

‘You will be quite well soon.’

‘With Heaven’s leave, and a little patience. But come in, come in!’ The old man limped on before, and warning her of the downward step, which he achieved himself with no small difficulty, led the way into his little cottage.

‘It is but one room you see. There is another up above, but the stair has got harder to climb o’ late years, and I never use it. I’m thinking of taking to it again, next summer, though.’

The child wondered how a grey-headed man like him—one of his trade too—could talk of time so easily. He saw her eyes wandering to the tools that hung upon the wall, and smiled.

‘I warrant now,’ he said, ‘that you think all those are used in making graves.’

‘Indeed, I wondered that you wanted so many.’

‘And well you might. I am a gardener. I dig the ground, and plant things that are to live and grow. My works don’t all moulder away, and rot in the earth. You see that spade in the centre?’

‘The very old one—so notched and worn? Yes.’

‘That’s the sexton’s spade, and it’s a well-used one, as you see. We’re healthy people here, but it has done a power of work. If it could speak now, that spade, it would tell you of many an unexpected job that it and I have done together; but I forget ‘em, for my memory’s a poor one.—That’s nothing new,’ he added hastily. ‘It always was.’

‘There are flowers and shrubs to speak to your other work,’ said the child.

‘Oh yes. And tall trees. But they are not so separate from the sexton’s labours as you think.’

‘No!’

‘Not in my mind, and recollection—such as it is,’ said the old man. ‘Indeed they often help it. For say that I planted such a tree for such a man. There it stands, to remind me that he died. When I look at its broad shadow, and remember what it was in his time, it helps me to the age of my other work, and I can tell you pretty nearly when I made his grave.’

‘But it may remind you of one who is still alive,’ said the child.

‘Of twenty that are dead, in connexion with that one who lives, then,’ rejoined the old man; ‘wife, husband, parents, brothers, sisters, children, friends—a score at least. So it happens that the sexton’s spade gets worn and battered. I shall need a new one—next summer.’

The child looked quickly towards him, thinking that he jested with his age and infirmity: but the unconscious sexton was quite in earnest.

‘Ah!’ he said, after a brief silence. ‘People never learn. They never learn. It’s only we who turn up the ground, where nothing grows and everything decays, who think of such things as these—who think of them properly, I mean. You have been into the church?’

‘I am going there now,’ the child replied.

‘There’s an old well there,’ said the sexton, ‘right underneath the belfry; a deep, dark, echoing well. Forty year ago, you had only to let down the bucket till the first knot in the rope was free of the windlass, and you heard it splashing in the cold dull water. By little and little the water fell away, so that in ten year after that, a second knot was made, and you must unwind so much rope, or the bucket swung tight and empty at the end. In ten years’ time, the water fell again, and a third knot was made. In ten years more, the well dried up; and now, if you lower the bucket till your arms are tired, and let out nearly all the cord, you’ll hear it, of a sudden, clanking and rattling on the ground below; with a sound of being so deep and so far down, that your heart leaps into your mouth, and you start away as if you were falling in.’

‘A dreadful place to come on in the dark!’ exclaimed the child, who had followed the old man’s looks and words until she seemed to stand upon its brink.

‘What is it but a grave!’ said the sexton. ‘What else! And which of our old folks, knowing all this, thought, as the spring subsided, of their own failing strength, and lessening life? Not one!’

‘Are you very old yourself?’ asked the child, involuntarily.

‘I shall be seventy-nine—next summer.’

‘You still work when you are well?’

‘Work! To be sure. You shall see my gardens hereabout. Look at the window there. I made, and have kept, that plot of ground entirely with my own hands. By this time next year I shall hardly see the sky, the boughs will have grown so thick. I have my winter work at night besides.’

He opened, as he spoke, a cupboard close to where he sat, and produced some miniature boxes, carved in a homely manner and made of old wood.

‘Some gentlefolks who are fond of ancient days, and what belongs to them,’ he said, ‘like to buy these keepsakes from our church and ruins. Sometimes, I make them of scraps of oak, that turn up here and there; sometimes of bits of coffins which the vaults have long preserved. See here—this is a little chest of the last kind, clasped at the edges with fragments of brass plates that had writing on ‘em once, though it would be hard to read it now. I haven’t many by me at this time of year, but these shelves will be full—next summer.’

The child admired and praised his work, and shortly afterwards departed; thinking, as she went, how strange it was, that this old man, drawing from his pursuits, and everything around him, one stern moral, never contemplated its application to himself; and, while he dwelt upon the uncertainty of human life, seemed both in word and deed to deem himself immortal. But her musings did not stop here, for she was wise enough to think that by a good and merciful adjustment this must be human nature, and that the old sexton, with his plans for next summer, was but a type of all mankind.

Full of these meditations, she reached the church. It was easy to find the key belonging to the outer door, for each was labelled on a scrap of yellow parchment. Its very turning in the lock awoke a hollow sound, and when she entered with a faltering step, the echoes that it raised in closing, made her start.

If the peace of the simple village had moved the child more strongly, because of the dark and troubled ways that lay beyond, and through which she had journeyed with such failing feet, what was the deep impression of finding herself alone in that solemn building, where the very light, coming through sunken windows, seemed old and grey, and the air, redolent of earth and mould, seemed laden with decay, purified by time of all its grosser particles, and sighing through arch and aisle, and clustered pillars, like the breath of ages gone! Here was the broken pavement, worn, so long ago, by pious feet, that Time, stealing on the pilgrims’ steps, had trodden out their track, and left but crumbling stones. Here were the rotten beam, the sinking arch, the sapped and mouldering wall, the lowly trench of earth, the stately tomb on which no epitaph remained—all—marble, stone, iron, wood, and dust—one common monument of ruin. The best work and the worst, the plainest and the richest, the stateliest and the least imposing—both of Heaven’s work and Man’s—all found one common level here, and told one common tale.

Some part of the edifice had been a baronial chapel, and here were effigies of warriors stretched upon their beds of stone with folded hands—cross-legged, those who had fought in the Holy Wars—girded with their swords, and cased in armour as they had lived. Some of these knights had their own weapons, helmets, coats of mail, hanging upon the walls hard by, and dangling from rusty hooks. Broken and dilapidated as they were, they yet retained their ancient form, and something of their ancient aspect. Thus violent deeds live after men upon the earth, and traces of war and bloodshed will survive in mournful shapes long after those who worked the desolation are but atoms of earth themselves.

The child sat down, in this old, silent place, among the stark figures on the tombs—they made it more quiet there, than elsewhere, to her fancy—and gazing round with a feeling of awe, tempered with a calm delight, felt that now she was happy, and at rest. She took a Bible from the shelf, and read; then, laying it down, thought of the summer days and the bright springtime that would come—of the rays of sun that would fall in aslant, upon the sleeping forms—of the leaves that would flutter at the window, and play in glistening shadows on the pavement—of the songs of birds, and growth of buds and blossoms out of doors—of the sweet air, that would steal in, and gently wave the tattered banners overhead. What if the spot awakened thoughts of death! Die who would, it would still remain the same; these sights and sounds would still go on, as happily as ever. It would be no pain to sleep amidst them.

She left the chapel—very slowly and often turning back to gaze again—and coming to a low door, which plainly led into the tower, opened it, and climbed the winding stair in darkness; save where she looked down, through narrow loopholes, on the place she had left, or caught a glimmering vision of the dusty bells. At length she gained the end of the ascent and stood upon the turret top.

Oh! the glory of the sudden burst of light; the freshness of the fields and woods, stretching away on every side, and meeting the bright blue sky; the cattle grazing in the pasturage; the smoke, that, coming from among the trees, seemed to rise upward from the green earth; the children yet at their gambols down below—all, everything, so beautiful and happy! It was like passing from death to life; it was drawing nearer Heaven.

The children were gone, when she emerged into the porch, and locked the door. As she passed the school-house she could hear the busy hum of voices. Her friend had begun his labours only on that day. The noise grew louder, and, looking back, she saw the boys come trooping out and disperse themselves with merry shouts and play. ‘It’s a good thing,’ thought the child, ‘I am very glad they pass the church.’ And then she stopped, to fancy how the noise would sound inside, and how gently it would seem to die away upon the ear.

Again that day, yes, twice again, she stole back to the old chapel, and in her former seat read from the same book, or indulged the same quiet train of thought. Even when it had grown dusk, and the shadows of coming night made it more solemn still, the child remained, like one rooted to the spot, and had no fear or thought of stirring.

They found her there, at last, and took her home. She looked pale but very happy, until they separated for the night; and then, as the poor schoolmaster stooped down to kiss her cheek, he thought he felt a tear upon his face.





CHAPTER 54

The bachelor, among his various occupations, found in the old church a constant source of interest and amusement. Taking that pride in it which men conceive for the wonders of their own little world, he had made its history his study; and many a summer day within its walls, and many a winter’s night beside the parsonage fire, had found the bachelor still poring over, and adding to, his goodly store of tale and legend.

As he was not one of those rough spirits who would strip fair Truth of every little shadowy vestment in which time and teeming fancies love to array her—and some of which become her pleasantly enough, serving, like the waters of her well, to add new graces to the charms they half conceal and half suggest, and to awaken interest and pursuit rather than languor and indifference—as, unlike this stern and obdurate class, he loved to see the goddess crowned with those garlands of wild flowers which tradition wreathes for her gentle wearing, and which are often freshest in their homeliest shapes—he trod with a light step and bore with a light hand upon the dust of centuries, unwilling to demolish any of the airy shrines that had been raised above it, if any good feeling or affection of the human heart were hiding thereabouts. Thus, in the case of an ancient coffin of rough stone, supposed, for many generations, to contain the bones of a certain baron, who, after ravaging, with cut, and thrust, and plunder, in foreign lands, came back with a penitent and sorrowing heart to die at home, but which had been lately shown by learned antiquaries to be no such thing, as the baron in question (so they contended) had died hard in battle, gnashing his teeth and cursing with his latest breath—the bachelor stoutly maintained that the old tale was the true one; that the baron, repenting him of the evil, had done great charities and meekly given up the ghost; and that, if ever baron went to heaven, that baron was then at peace. In like manner, when the aforesaid antiquaries did argue and contend that a certain secret vault was not the tomb of a grey-haired lady who had been hanged and drawn and quartered by glorious Queen Bess for succouring a wretched priest who fainted of thirst and hunger at her door, the bachelor did solemnly maintain, against all comers, that the church was hallowed by the said poor lady’s ashes; that her remains had been collected in the night from four of the city’s gates, and thither in secret brought, and there deposited; and the bachelor did further (being highly excited at such times) deny the glory of Queen Bess, and assert the immeasurably greater glory of the meanest woman in her realm, who had a merciful and tender heart. As to the assertion that the flat stone near the door was not the grave of the miser who had disowned his only child and left a sum of money to the church to buy a peal of bells, the bachelor did readily admit the same, and that the place had given birth to no such man. In a word, he would have had every stone, and plate of brass, the monument only of deeds whose memory should survive. All others he was willing to forget. They might be buried in consecrated ground, but he would have had them buried deep, and never brought to light again.

It was from the lips of such a tutor, that the child learnt her easy task. Already impressed, beyond all telling, by the silent building and the peaceful beauty of the spot in which it stood—majestic age surrounded by perpetual youth—it seemed to her, when she heard these things, sacred to all goodness and virtue. It was another world, where sin and sorrow never came; a tranquil place of rest, where nothing evil entered.

When the bachelor had given her in connection with almost every tomb and flat grave-stone some history of its own, he took her down into the old crypt, now a mere dull vault, and showed her how it had been lighted up in the time of the monks, and how, amid lamps depending from the roof, and swinging censers exhaling scented odours, and habits glittering with gold and silver, and pictures, and precious stuffs, and jewels all flashing and glistening through the low arches, the chaunt of aged voices had been many a time heard there, at midnight, in old days, while hooded figures knelt and prayed around, and told their rosaries of beads. Thence, he took her above ground again, and showed her, high up in the old walls, small galleries, where the nuns had been wont to glide along—dimly seen in their dark dresses so far off—or to pause like gloomy shadows, listening to the prayers. He showed her too, how the warriors, whose figures rested on the tombs, had worn those rotting scraps of armour up above—how this had been a helmet, and that a shield, and that a gauntlet—and how they had wielded the great two-handed swords, and beaten men down, with yonder iron mace. All that he told the child she treasured in her mind; and sometimes, when she awoke at night from dreams of those old times, and rising from her bed looked out at the dark church, she almost hoped to see the windows lighted up, and hear the organ’s swell, and sound of voices, on the rushing wind.

The old sexton soon got better, and was about again. From him the child learnt many other things, though of a different kind. He was not able to work, but one day there was a grave to be made, and he came to overlook the man who dug it. He was in a talkative mood; and the child, at first standing by his side, and afterwards sitting on the grass at his feet, with her thoughtful face raised towards his, began to converse with him.

Now, the man who did the sexton’s duty was a little older than he, though much more active. But he was deaf; and when the sexton (who peradventure, on a pinch, might have walked a mile with great difficulty in half-a-dozen hours) exchanged a remark with him about his work, the child could not help noticing that he did so with an impatient kind of pity for his infirmity, as if he were himself the strongest and heartiest man alive.

‘I’m sorry to see there is this to do,’ said the child when she approached. ‘I heard of no one having died.’

‘She lived in another hamlet, my dear,’ returned the sexton. ‘Three mile away.’

‘Was she young?’

‘Ye-yes’ said the sexton; not more than sixty-four, I think. David, was she more than sixty-four?’

David, who was digging hard, heard nothing of the question. The sexton, as he could not reach to touch him with his crutch, and was too infirm to rise without assistance, called his attention by throwing a little mould upon his red nightcap.

‘What’s the matter now?’ said David, looking up.

‘How old was Becky Morgan?’ asked the sexton.

‘Becky Morgan?’ repeated David.

‘Yes,’ replied the sexton; adding in a half compassionate, half irritable tone, which the old man couldn’t hear, ‘you’re getting very deaf, Davy, very deaf to be sure!’

The old man stopped in his work, and cleansing his spade with a piece of slate he had by him for the purpose—and scraping off, in the process, the essence of Heaven knows how many Becky Morgans—set himself to consider the subject.

‘Let me think’ quoth he. ‘I saw last night what they had put upon the coffin—was it seventy-nine?’

‘No, no,’ said the sexton.

‘Ah yes, it was though,’ returned the old man with a sigh. ‘For I remember thinking she was very near our age. Yes, it was seventy-nine.’

‘Are you sure you didn’t mistake a figure, Davy?’ asked the sexton, with signs of some emotion.

‘What?’ said the old man. ‘Say that again.’

‘He’s very deaf. He’s very deaf indeed,’ cried the sexton petulantly; ‘are you sure you’re right about the figures?’

‘Oh quite,’ replied the old man. ‘Why not?’

‘He’s exceedingly deaf,’ muttered the sexton to himself. ‘I think he’s getting foolish.’

The child rather wondered what had led him to this belief, as, to say the truth, the old man seemed quite as sharp as he, and was infinitely more robust. As the sexton said nothing more just then, however, she forgot it for the time, and spoke again.

‘You were telling me,’ she said, ‘about your gardening. Do you ever plant things here?’

‘In the churchyard?’ returned the sexton, ‘Not I.’

‘I have seen some flowers and little shrubs about,’ the child rejoined; ‘there are some over there, you see. I thought they were of your rearing, though indeed they grow but poorly.’

‘They grow as Heaven wills,’ said the old man; ‘and it kindly ordains that they shall never flourish here.’

‘I do not understand you.’

‘Why, this it is,’ said the sexton. ‘They mark the graves of those who had very tender, loving friends.’

‘I was sure they did!’ the child exclaimed. ‘I am very glad to know they do!’

‘Aye,’ returned the old man, ‘but stay. Look at them. See how they hang their heads, and droop, and wither. Do you guess the reason?’

‘No,’ the child replied.

‘Because the memory of those who lie below, passes away so soon. At first they tend them, morning, noon, and night; they soon begin to come less frequently; from once a day, to once a week; from once a week to once a month; then, at long and uncertain intervals; then, not at all. Such tokens seldom flourish long. I have known the briefest summer flowers outlive them.’

‘I grieve to hear it,’ said the child.

‘Ah! so say the gentlefolks who come down here to look about them,’ returned the old man, shaking his head, ‘but I say otherwise. “It’s a pretty custom you have in this part of the country,” they say to me sometimes, “to plant the graves, but it’s melancholy to see these things all withering or dead.” I crave their pardon and tell them that, as I take it, ‘tis a good sign for the happiness of the living. And so it is. It’s nature.’

‘Perhaps the mourners learn to look to the blue sky by day, and to the stars by night, and to think that the dead are there, and not in graves,’ said the child in an earnest voice.

‘Perhaps so,’ replied the old man doubtfully. ‘It may be.’

‘Whether it be as I believe it is, or no,’ thought the child within herself, ‘I’ll make this place my garden. It will be no harm at least to work here day by day, and pleasant thoughts will come of it, I am sure.’

Her glowing cheek and moistened eye passed unnoticed by the sexton, who turned towards old David, and called him by his name. It was plain that Becky Morgan’s age still troubled him; though why, the child could scarcely understand.

The second or third repetition of his name attracted the old man’s attention. Pausing from his work, he leant on his spade, and put his hand to his dull ear.

‘Did you call?’ he said.

‘I have been thinking, Davy,’ replied the sexton, ‘that she,’ he pointed to the grave, ‘must have been a deal older than you or me.’

‘Seventy-nine,’ answered the old man with a shake of the head, ‘I tell you that I saw it.’

‘Saw it?’ replied the sexton; ‘aye, but, Davy, women don’t always tell the truth about their age.’

‘That’s true indeed,’ said the other old man, with a sudden sparkle in his eye. ‘She might have been older.’

‘I’m sure she must have been. Why, only think how old she looked. You and I seemed but boys to her.’

‘She did look old,’ rejoined David. ‘You’re right. She did look old.’

‘Call to mind how old she looked for many a long, long year, and say if she could be but seventy-nine at last—only our age,’ said the sexton.

‘Five year older at the very least!’ cried the other.

‘Five!’ retorted the sexton. ‘Ten. Good eighty-nine. I call to mind the time her daughter died. She was eighty-nine if she was a day, and tries to pass upon us now, for ten year younger. Oh! human vanity!’

The other old man was not behindhand with some moral reflections on this fruitful theme, and both adduced a mass of evidence, of such weight as to render it doubtful—not whether the deceased was of the age suggested, but whether she had not almost reached the patriarchal term of a hundred. When they had settled this question to their mutual satisfaction, the sexton, with his friend’s assistance, rose to go.

‘It’s chilly, sitting here, and I must be careful—till the summer,’ he said, as he prepared to limp away.

‘What?’ asked old David.

‘He’s very deaf, poor fellow!’ cried the sexton. ‘Good-bye!’

'Ah!’ said old David, looking after him. ‘He’s failing very fast. He ages every day.’

And so they parted; each persuaded that the other had less life in him than himself; and both greatly consoled and comforted by the little fiction they had agreed upon, respecting Becky Morgan, whose decease was no longer a precedent of uncomfortable application, and would be no business of theirs for half a score of years to come.

The child remained, for some minutes, watching the deaf old man as he threw out the earth with his shovel, and, often stopping to cough and fetch his breath, still muttered to himself, with a kind of sober chuckle, that the sexton was wearing fast. At length she turned away, and walking thoughtfully through the churchyard, came unexpectedly upon the schoolmaster, who was sitting on a green grave in the sun, reading.

‘Nell here?’ he said cheerfully, as he closed his book. ‘It does me good to see you in the air and light. I feared you were again in the church, where you so often are.’

‘Feared!’ replied the child, sitting down beside him. ‘Is it not a good place?’

‘Yes, yes,’ said the schoolmaster. ‘But you must be gay sometimes—nay, don’t shake your head and smile so sadly.’

‘Not sadly, if you knew my heart. Do not look at me as if you thought me sorrowful. There is not a happier creature on earth, than I am now.’

Full of grateful tenderness, the child took his hand, and folded it between her own. ‘It’s God’s will!’ she said, when they had been silent for some time.

‘What?’

‘All this,’ she rejoined; ‘all this about us. But which of us is sad now? You see that I am smiling.’

‘And so am I,’ said the schoolmaster; ‘smiling to think how often we shall laugh in this same place. Were you not talking yonder?’

‘Yes,’the child rejoined.

‘Of something that has made you sorrowful?’

There was a long pause.

‘What was it?’ said the schoolmaster, tenderly. ‘Come. Tell me what it was.’

‘I rather grieve—I do rather grieve to think,’ said the child, bursting into tears, ‘that those who die about us, are so soon forgotten.’

‘And do you think,’ said the schoolmaster, marking the glance she had thrown around, ‘that an unvisited grave, a withered tree, a faded flower or two, are tokens of forgetfulness or cold neglect? Do you think there are no deeds, far away from here, in which these dead may be best remembered? Nell, Nell, there may be people busy in the world, at this instant, in whose good actions and good thoughts these very graves—neglected as they look to us—are the chief instruments.’

‘Tell me no more,’ said the child quickly. ‘Tell me no more. I feel, I know it. How could I be unmindful of it, when I thought of you?’

‘There is nothing,’ cried her friend, ‘no, nothing innocent or good, that dies, and is forgotten. Let us hold to that faith, or none. An infant, a prattling child, dying in its cradle, will live again in the better thoughts of those who loved it, and will play its part, through them, in the redeeming actions of the world, though its body be burnt to ashes or drowned in the deepest sea. There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work on earth in those that loved it here. Forgotten! oh, if the good deeds of human creatures could be traced to their source, how beautiful would even death appear; for how much charity, mercy, and purified affection, would be seen to have their growth in dusty graves!’

‘Yes,’ said the child, ‘it is the truth; I know it is. Who should feel its force so much as I, in whom your little scholar lives again! Dear, dear, good friend, if you knew the comfort you have given me!’

The poor schoolmaster made her no answer, but bent over her in silence; for his heart was full.

They were yet seated in the same place, when the grandfather approached. Before they had spoken many words together, the church clock struck the hour of school, and their friend withdrew.

‘A good man,’ said the grandfather, looking after him; ‘a kind man. Surely he will never harm us, Nell. We are safe here, at last, eh? We will never go away from here?’

The child shook her head and smiled.

‘She needs rest,’ said the old man, patting her cheek; ‘too pale—too pale. She is not like what she was.’

‘When?’ asked the child.

‘Ha!’ said the old man, ‘to be sure—when? How many weeks ago? Could I count them on my fingers? Let them rest though; they’re better gone.’

‘Much better, dear,’ replied the child. ‘We will forget them; or, if we ever call them to mind, it shall be only as some uneasy dream that has passed away.’

‘Hush!’ said the old man, motioning hastily to her with his hand and looking over his shoulder; ‘no more talk of the dream, and all the miseries it brought. There are no dreams here. ‘Tis a quiet place, and they keep away. Let us never think about them, lest they should pursue us again. Sunken eyes and hollow cheeks—wet, cold, and famine—and horrors before them all, that were even worse—we must forget such things if we would be tranquil here.’

‘Thank Heaven!’ inwardly exclaimed the child, ‘for this most happy change!’

‘I will be patient,’ said the old man, ‘humble, very thankful, and obedient, if you will let me stay. But do not hide from me; do not steal away alone; let me keep beside you. Indeed, I will be very true and faithful, Nell.’

‘I steal away alone! why that,’ replied the child, with assumed gaiety, ‘would be a pleasant jest indeed. See here, dear grandfather, we’ll make this place our garden—why not! It is a very good one—and to-morrow we’ll begin, and work together, side by side.’

‘It is a brave thought!’ cried her grandfather. ‘Mind, darling—we begin to-morrow!’

Who so delighted as the old man, when they next day began their labour! Who so unconscious of all associations connected with the spot, as he! They plucked the long grass and nettles from the tombs, thinned the poor shrubs and roots, made the turf smooth, and cleared it of the leaves and weeds. They were yet in the ardour of their work, when the child, raising her head from the ground over which she bent, observed that the bachelor was sitting on the stile close by, watching them in silence.

‘A kind office,’ said the little gentleman, nodding to Nell as she curtseyed to him. ‘Have you done all that, this morning?’

‘It is very little, sir,’ returned the child, with downcast eyes, ‘to what we mean to do.’

‘Good work, good work,’ said the bachelor. ‘But do you only labour at the graves of children, and young people?’

‘We shall come to the others in good time, sir,’ replied Nell, turning her head aside, and speaking softly.

It was a slight incident, and might have been design or accident, or the child’s unconscious sympathy with youth. But it seemed to strike upon her grandfather, though he had not noticed it before. He looked in a hurried manner at the graves, then anxiously at the child, then pressed her to his side, and bade her stop to rest. Something he had long forgotten, appeared to struggle faintly in his mind. It did not pass away, as weightier things had done; but came uppermost again, and yet again, and many times that day, and often afterwards. Once, while they were yet at work, the child, seeing that he often turned and looked uneasily at her, as though he were trying to resolve some painful doubts or collect some scattered thoughts, urged him to tell the reason. But he said it was nothing—nothing—and, laying her head upon his arm, patted her fair cheek with his hand, and muttered that she grew stronger every day, and would be a woman, soon.





CHAPTER 55

From that time, there sprung up in the old man’s mind, a solicitude about the child which never slept or left him. There are chords in the human heart—strange, varying strings—which are only struck by accident; which will remain mute and senseless to appeals the most passionate and earnest, and respond at last to the slightest casual touch. In the most insensible or childish minds, there is some train of reflection which art can seldom lead, or skill assist, but which will reveal itself, as great truths have done, by chance, and when the discoverer has the plainest end in view. From that time, the old man never, for a moment, forgot the weakness and devotion of the child; from the time of that slight incident, he who had seen her toiling by his side through so much difficulty and suffering, and had scarcely thought of her otherwise than as the partner of miseries which he felt severely in his own person, and deplored for his own sake at least as much as hers, awoke to a sense of what he owed her, and what those miseries had made her. Never, no, never once, in one unguarded moment from that time to the end, did any care for himself, any thought of his own comfort, any selfish consideration or regard distract his thoughts from the gentle object of his love.

He would follow her up and down, waiting till she should tire and lean upon his arm—he would sit opposite to her in the chimney-corner, content to watch, and look, until she raised her head and smiled upon him as of old—he would discharge by stealth, those household duties which tasked her powers too heavily—he would rise, in the cold dark nights, to listen to her breathing in her sleep, and sometimes crouch for hours by her bedside only to touch her hand. He who knows all, can only know what hopes, and fears, and thoughts of deep affection, were in that one disordered brain, and what a change had fallen on the poor old man. Sometimes—weeks had crept on, then—the child, exhausted, though with little fatigue, would pass whole evenings on a couch beside the fire. At such times, the schoolmaster would bring in books, and read to her aloud; and seldom an evening passed, but the bachelor came in, and took his turn of reading. The old man sat and listened—with little understanding for the words, but with his eyes fixed upon the child—and if she smiled or brightened with the story, he would say it was a good one, and conceive a fondness for the very book. When, in their evening talk, the bachelor told some tale that pleased her (as his tales were sure to do), the old man would painfully try to store it in his mind; nay, when the bachelor left them, he would sometimes slip out after him, and humbly beg that he would tell him such a part again, that he might learn to win a smile from Nell.

But these were rare occasions, happily; for the child yearned to be out of doors, and walking in her solemn garden. Parties, too, would come to see the church; and those who came, speaking to others of the child, sent more; so even at that season of the year they had visitors almost daily. The old man would follow them at a little distance through the building, listening to the voice he loved so well; and when the strangers left, and parted from Nell, he would mingle with them to catch up fragments of their conversation; or he would stand for the same purpose, with his grey head uncovered, at the gate as they passed through.

They always praised the child, her sense and beauty, and he was proud to hear them! But what was that, so often added, which wrung his heart, and made him sob and weep alone, in some dull corner! Alas! even careless strangers—they who had no feeling for her, but the interest of the moment—they who would go away and forget next week that such a being lived—even they saw it—even they pitied her—even they bade him good day compassionately, and whispered as they passed.

The people of the village, too, of whom there was not one but grew to have a fondness for poor Nell; even among them, there was the same feeling; a tenderness towards her—a compassionate regard for her, increasing every day. The very schoolboys, light-hearted and thoughtless as they were, even they cared for her. The roughest among them was sorry if he missed her in the usual place upon his way to school, and would turn out of the path to ask for her at the latticed window. If she were sitting in the church, they perhaps might peep in softly at the open door; but they never spoke to her, unless she rose and went to speak to them. Some feeling was abroad which raised the child above them all.

So, when Sunday came. They were all poor country people in the church, for the castle in which the old family had lived, was an empty ruin, and there were none but humble folks for seven miles around. There, as elsewhere, they had an interest in Nell. They would gather round her in the porch, before and after service; young children would cluster at her skirts; and aged men and women forsake their gossips, to give her kindly greeting. None of them, young or old, thought of passing the child without a friendly word. Many who came from three or four miles distant, brought her little presents; the humblest and rudest had good wishes to bestow.

She had sought out the young children whom she first saw playing in the churchyard. One of these—he who had spoken of his brother—was her little favourite and friend, and often sat by her side in the church, or climbed with her to the tower-top. It was his delight to help her, or to fancy that he did so, and they soon became close companions.

It happened, that, as she was reading in the old spot by herself one day, this child came running in with his eyes full of tears, and after holding her from him, and looking at her eagerly for a moment, clasped his little arms passionately about her neck.

‘What now?’ said Nell, soothing him. ‘What is the matter?’

‘She is not one yet!’ cried the boy, embracing her still more closely. ‘No, no. Not yet.’

She looked at him wonderingly, and putting his hair back from his face, and kissing him, asked what he meant.

‘You must not be one, dear Nell,’ cried the boy. ‘We can’t see them. They never come to play with us, or talk to us. Be what you are. You are better so.’

‘I do not understand you,’ said the child. ‘Tell me what you mean.’

‘Why, they say,’ replied the boy, looking up into her face, that you will be an Angel, before the birds sing again. But you won’t be, will you? Don’t leave us Nell, though the sky is bright. Do not leave us!’

The child dropped her head, and put her hands before her face.

‘She cannot bear the thought!’ cried the boy, exulting through his tears. ‘You will not go. You know how sorry we should be. Dear Nell, tell me that you’ll stay amongst us. Oh! Pray, pray, tell me that you will.’

The little creature folded his hands, and knelt down at her feet.

‘Only look at me, Nell,’ said the boy, ‘and tell me that you’ll stop, and then I shall know that they are wrong, and will cry no more. Won’t you say yes, Nell?’

Still the drooping head and hidden face, and the child quite silent—save for her sobs.

‘After a time,’ pursued the boy, trying to draw away her hand, ‘the kind angels will be glad to think that you are not among them, and that you stayed here to be with us. Willy went away, to join them; but if he had known how I should miss him in our little bed at night, he never would have left me, I am sure.’

Yet the child could make him no answer, and sobbed as though her heart were bursting. ‘Why would you go, dear Nell? I know you would not be happy when you heard that we were crying for your loss. They say that Willy is in Heaven now, and that it’s always summer there, and yet I’m sure he grieves when I lie down upon his garden bed, and he cannot turn to kiss me. But if you do go, Nell,’ said the boy, caressing her, and pressing his face to hers, ‘be fond of him for my sake. Tell him how I love him still, and how much I loved you; and when I think that you two are together, and are happy, I’ll try to bear it, and never give you pain by doing wrong—indeed I never will!’

The child suffered him to move her hands, and put them round his neck. There was a tearful silence, but it was not long before she looked upon him with a smile, and promised him, in a very gentle, quiet voice, that she would stay, and be his friend, as long as Heaven would let her. He clapped his hands for joy, and thanked her many times; and being charged to tell no person what had passed between them, gave her an earnest promise that he never would.

Nor did he, so far as the child could learn; but was her quiet companion in all her walks and musings, and never again adverted to the theme, which he felt had given her pain, although he was unconscious of its cause. Something of distrust lingered about him still; for he would often come, even in the dark evenings, and call in a timid voice outside the door to know if she were safe within; and being answered yes, and bade to enter, would take his station on a low stool at her feet, and sit there patiently until they came to seek, and take him home. Sure as the morning came, it found him lingering near the house to ask if she were well; and, morning, noon, or night, go where she would, he would forsake his playmates and his sports to bear her company.

‘And a good little friend he is, too,’ said the old sexton to her once. ‘When his elder brother died—elder seems a strange word, for he was only seven years old—I remember this one took it sorely to heart.’

The child thought of what the schoolmaster had told her, and felt how its truth was shadowed out even in this infant.

‘It has given him something of a quiet way, I think,’ said the old man, ‘though for that he is merry enough at times. I’d wager now that you and he have been listening by the old well.’

‘Indeed we have not,’ the child replied. ‘I have been afraid to go near it; for I am not often down in that part of the church, and do not know the ground.’

‘Come down with me,’ said the old man. ‘I have known it from a boy. Come!’

They descended the narrow steps which led into the crypt, and paused among the gloomy arches, in a dim and murky spot.

‘This is the place,’ said the old man. ‘Give me your hand while you throw back the cover, lest you should stumble and fall in. I am too old—I mean rheumatic—to stoop, myself.’

‘A black and dreadful place!’ exclaimed the child.

‘Look in,’ said the old man, pointing downward with his finger.

The child complied, and gazed down into the pit.

‘It looks like a grave itself,’ said the old man.

‘It does,’ replied the child.

‘I have often had the fancy,’ said the sexton, ‘that it might have been dug at first to make the old place more gloomy, and the old monks more religious. It’s to be closed up, and built over.’

The child still stood, looking thoughtfully into the vault.

‘We shall see,’ said the sexton, ‘on what gay heads other earth will have closed, when the light is shut out from here. God knows! They’ll close it up, next spring.’

‘The birds sing again in spring,’ thought the child, as she leaned at her casement window, and gazed at the declining sun. ‘Spring! a beautiful and happy time!’