Night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave home earl_n the morning, and roam about fields and lanes all day, or even escape fo_ays or weeks together; but, saving in the country, I seldom go out unti_fter dark, though, Heaven be thanked, I love its light and feel th_heerfulness it sheds upon the earth, as much as any creature living.
I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my infirmit_nd because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the character_nd occupations of those who fill the streets. The glare and hurry of broa_oon are not adapted to idle pursuits like mine; a glimpse of passing face_aught by the light of a street-lamp or a shop window is often better for m_urpose than their full revelation in the daylight; and, if I must add th_ruth, night is kinder in this respect than day, which too often destroys a_ir-built castle at the moment of its completion, without the least ceremon_r remorse.
That constant pacing to and fro, that never-ending restlessness, tha_ncessant tread of feet wearing the rough stones smooth and glossy—is it not _onder how the dwellers in narrows ways can bear to hear it! Think of a sic_an in such a place as Saint Martin's Court, listening to the footsteps, an_n the midst of pain and weariness obliged, despite himself (as though it wer_ task he must perform) to detect the child's step from the man's, th_lipshod beggar from the booted exquisite, the lounging from the busy, th_ull heel of the sauntering outcast from the quick tread of an expectan_leasure-seeker—think of the hum and noise always being present to his sense, and of the stream of life that will not stop, pouring on, on, on, through al_is restless dreams, as if he were condemned to lie, dead but conscious, in _oisy churchyard, and had no hope of rest for centuries to come.
Then, the crowds for ever passing and repassing on the bridges (on those whic_re free of toil at last), where many stop on fine evenings looking listlessl_own upon the water with some vague idea that by and by it runs between gree_anks which grow wider and wider until at last it joins the broad vas_ea—where some halt to rest from heavy loads and think as they look over th_arapet that to smoke and lounge away one's life, and lie sleeping in the su_pon a hot tarpaulin, in a dull, slow, sluggish barge, must be happines_nalloyed—and where some, and a very different class, pause with heaver load_han they, remembering to have heard or read in old time that drowning was no_ hard death, but of all means of suicide the easiest and best.
Covent Garden Market at sunrise too, in the spring or summer, when th_ragrance of sweet flowers is in the air, over-powering even the unwholesom_treams of last night's debauchery, and driving the dusky thrust, whose cag_as hung outside a garret window all night long, half mad with joy! Poor bird!
the only neighbouring thing at all akin to the other little captives, some o_hom, shrinking from the hot hands of drunken purchasers, lie drooping on th_ath already, while others, soddened by close contact, await the time whe_hey shall be watered and freshened up to please more sober company, and mak_ld clerks who pass them on their road to business, wonder what has fille_heir breasts with visions of the country.
But my present purpose is not to expatiate upon my walks. The story I am abou_o relate, and to which I shall recur at intervals, arose out of one of thes_ambles; and thus I have been led to speak of them by way of preface.
One night I had roamed into the City, and was walking slowly on in my usua_ay, musing upon a great many things, when I was arrested by an inquiry, th_urport of which did not reach me, but which seemed to be addressed to myself, and was preferred in a soft sweet voice that struck me very pleasantly. _urned hastily round and found at my elbow a pretty little girl, who begged t_e directed to a certain street at a considerable distance, and indeed i_uite another quarter of the town.
It is a very long way from here,' said I, 'my child.'
'I know that, sir,' she replied timidly. 'I am afraid it is a very long way, for I came from there to-night.'
'Alone?' said I, in some surprise.
'Oh, yes, I don't mind that, but I am a little frightened now, for I had los_y road.'
'And what made you ask it of me? Suppose I should tell you wrong?'
'I am sure you will not do that,' said the little creature,' you are such _ery old gentleman, and walk so slow yourself.'
I cannot describe how much I was impressed by this appeal and the energy wit_hich it was made, which brought a tear into the child's clear eye, and mad_er slight figure tremble as she looked up into my face.
'Come,' said I, 'I'll take you there.'
She put her hand in mind as confidingly as if she had known me from he_radle, and we trudged away together; the little creature accommodating he_ace to mine, and rather seeming to lead and take care of me than I to b_rotecting her. I observed that every now and then she stole a curious look a_y face, as if to make quite sure that I was not deceiving her, and that thes_lances (very sharp and keen they were too) seemed to increase her confidenc_t every repetition.
For my part, my curiosity and interest were at least equal to the child's, fo_hild she certainly was, although I thought it probably from what I could mak_ut, that her very small and delicate frame imparted a peculiar youthfulnes_o her appearance. Though more scantily attired than she might have been sh_as dressed with perfect neatness, and betrayed no marks of poverty o_eglect.
'Who has sent you so far by yourself?' said I.
'Someone who is very kind to me, sir.'
'And what have you been doing?'
'That, I must not tell,' said the child firmly.
There was something in the manner of this reply which caused me to look at th_ittle creature with an involuntary expression of surprise; for I wondere_hat kind of errand it might be that occasioned her to be prepared fo_uestioning. Her quick eye seemed to read my thoughts, for as it met mine sh_dded that there was no harm in what she had been doing, but it was a grea_ecret—a secret which she did not even know herself.
This was said with no appearance of cunning or deceit, but with a_nsuspicious frankness that bore the impress of truth. She walked on a_efore, growing more familiar with me as we proceeded and talking cheerfull_y the way, but she said no more about her home, beyond remarking that we wer_oing quite a new road and asking if it were a short one.
While we were thus engaged, I revolved in my mind a hundred differen_xplanations of the riddle and rejected them every one. I really felt ashame_o take advantage of the ingenuousness or grateful feeling of the child fo_he purpose of gratifying my curiosity. I love these little people; and it i_ot a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us. As I ha_elt pleased at first by her confidence I determined to deserve it, and to d_redit to the nature which had prompted her to repose it in me.
There was no reason, however, why I should refrain from seeing the person wh_ad inconsiderately sent her to so great a distance by night and alone, and a_t was not improbable that if she found herself near home she might tak_arewell of me and deprive me of the opportunity, I avoided the mos_requented ways and took the most intricate, and thus it was not until w_rrived in the street itself that she knew where we were. Clapping her hand_ith pleasure and running on before me for a short distance, my littl_cquaintance stopped at a door and remaining on the step till I came u_nocked at it when I joined her.
A part of this door was of glass unprotected by any shutter, which I did no_bserve at first, for all was very dark and silent within, and I was anxious (as indeed the child was also) for an answer to our summons. When she ha_nocked twice or thrice there was a noise as if some person were movin_nside, and at length a faint light appeared through the glass which, as i_pproached very slowly, the bearer having to make his way through a great man_cattered articles, enabled me to see both what kind of person it was wh_dvanced and what kind of place it was through which he came.
It was an old man with long grey hair, whose face and figure as he held th_ight above his head and looked before him as he approached, I could plainl_ee. Though much altered by age, I fancied I could recognize in his spare an_lender form something of that delicate mould which I had noticed in a child.
Their bright blue eyes were certainly alike, but his face was so deepl_urrowed and so very full of care, that here all resemblance ceased.
The place through which he made his way at leisure was one of thos_eceptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners o_his town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealous_nd distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here an_here, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons o_arious kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams. Th_aggard aspect of the little old man was wonderfully suited to the place; h_ight have groped among old churches and tombs and deserted houses an_athered all the spoils with his own hands. There was nothing in the whol_ollection but was in keeping with himself nothing that looked older or mor_orn than he.
As he turned the key in the lock, he surveyed me with some astonishment whic_as not diminished when he looked from me to my companion. The door bein_pened, the child addressed him as grandfather, and told him the little stor_f our companionship.
'Why, bless thee, child,' said the old man, patting her on the head, 'ho_ouldst thou miss thy way? What if I had lost thee, Nell!'
'I would have found my way back to YOU, grandfather,' said the child boldly;
The old man kissed her, then turning to me and begging me to walk in, I di_o. The door was closed and locked. Preceding me with the light, he led m_hrough the place I had already seen from without, into a small sitting-roo_ehind, in which was another door opening into a kind of closet, where I saw _ittle bed that a fairy might have slept in, it looked so very small and wa_o prettily arranged. The child took a candle and tripped into this littl_oom, leaving the old man and me together.
'You must be tired, sir,' said he as he placed a chair near the fire, 'how ca_ thank you?'
'By taking more care of your grandchild another time, my good friend,' _eplied.
'More care!' said the old man in a shrill voice, 'more care of Nelly! Why, wh_ver loved a child as I love Nell?'
He said this with such evident surprise that I was perplexed what answer t_ake, and the more so because coupled with something feeble and wandering i_is manner, there were in his face marks of deep and anxious thought whic_onvinced me that he could not be, as I had been at first inclined to suppose, in a state of dotage or imbecility.
'I don't think you consider—' I began.
'I don't consider!' cried the old man interrupting me, 'I don't consider her!
Ah, how little you know of the truth! Little Nelly, little Nelly!'
It would be impossible for any man, I care not what his form of speech migh_e, to express more affection than the dealer in curiosities did, in thes_our words. I waited for him to speak again, but he rested his chin upon hi_and and shaking his head twice or thrice fixed his eyes upon the fire.
While we were sitting thus in silence, the door of the closet opened, and th_hild returned, her light brown hair hanging loose about her neck, and he_ace flushed with the haste she had made to rejoin us. She busied hersel_mmediately in preparing supper, and while she was thus engaged I remarke_hat the old man took an opportunity of observing me more closely than he ha_one yet. I was surprised to see that all this time everything was done by th_hild, and that there appeared to be no other persons but ourselves in th_ouse. I took advantage of a moment when she was absent to venture a hint o_his point, to which the old man replied that there were few grown persons a_rustworthy or as careful as she.
'It always grieves me, ' I observed, roused by what I took to be hi_elfishness, 'it always grieves me to contemplate the initiation of childre_nto the ways of life, when they are scarcely more than infants. It check_heir confidence and simplicity—two of the best qualities that Heaven give_hem—and demands that they share our sorrows before they are capable o_ntering into our enjoyments.'
'It will never check hers,' said the old man looking steadily at me, 'th_prings are too deep. Besides, the children of the poor know but fe_leasures. Even the cheap delights of childhood must be bought and paid for.
'But—forgive me for saying this—you are surely not so very poor'—said I.
'She is not my child, sir,' returned the old man. 'Her mother was, and she wa_oor. I save nothing—not a penny—though I live as you see, but'—he laid hi_and upon my arm and leant forward to whisper—'she shall be rich one of thes_ays, and a fine lady. Don't you think ill of me because I use her help. Sh_ives it cheerfully as you see, and it would break her heart if she knew tha_ suffered anybody else to do for me what her little hands could undertake. _on't consider!'—he cried with sudden querulousness, 'why, God knows that thi_ne child is there thought and object of my life, and yet he never prosper_e—no, never!'
At this juncture, the subject of our conversation again returned, and the ol_en motioning to me to approach the table, broke off, and said no more.
We had scarcely begun our repast when there was a knock at the door by which _ad entered, and Nell bursting into a hearty laugh, which I was rejoiced t_ear, for it was childlike and full of hilarity, said it was no doubt dear ol_it coming back at last.
'Foolish Nell!' said the old man fondling with her hair. 'She always laughs a_oor Kit.'
The child laughed again more heartily than before, I could not help smilin_rom pure sympathy. The little old man took up a candle and went to open th_oor. When he came back, Kit was at his heels.
Kit was a shock-headed, shambling, awkward lad with an uncommonly wide mouth, very red cheeks, a turned-up nose, and certainly the most comical expressio_f face I ever saw. He stopped short at the door on seeing a stranger, twirle_n his hand a perfectly round old hat without any vestige of a brim, an_esting himself now on one leg and now on the other and changing the_onstantly, stood in the doorway, looking into the parlour with the mos_xtraordinary leer I ever beheld. I entertained a grateful feeling towards th_oy from that minute, for I felt that he was the comedy of the child's life.
'A long way, wasn't it, Kit?' said the little old man.
'Why, then, it was a goodish stretch, master,' returned Kit.
'Of course you have come back hungry?'
'Why, then, I do consider myself rather so, master,' was the answer.
The lad had a remarkable manner of standing sideways as he spoke, an_hrusting his head forward over his shoulder, as if he could not get at hi_oice without that accompanying action. I think he would have amused on_nywhere, but the child's exquisite enjoyment of his oddity, and the relief i_as to find that there was something she associated with merriment in a plac_hat appeared so unsuited to her, were quite irresistible. It was a grea_oint too that Kit himself was flattered by the sensation he created, an_fter several efforts to preserve his gravity, burst into a loud roar, and s_tood with his mouth wide open and his eyes nearly shut, laughing violently.
The old man had again relapsed into his former abstraction and took no notic_f what passed, but I remarked that when her laugh was over, the child'_right eyes were dimmed with tears, called forth by the fullness of heart wit_hich she welcomed her uncouth favourite after the little anxiety of th_ight. As for Kit himself (whose laugh had been all the time one of that sor_hich very little would change into a cry) he carried a large slice of brea_nd meat and a mug of beer into a corner, and applied himself to disposing o_hem with great voracity.
'Ah!' said the old man turning to me with a sigh, as if I had spoken to hi_ut that moment, 'you don't know what you say when you tell me that I don'_onsider her.'
'You must not attach too great weight to a remark founded on firs_ppearances, my friend,' said I.
'No,' returned the old man thoughtfully, 'no. Come hither, Nell.'
The little girl hastened from her seat, and put her arm about his neck.
'Do I love thee, Nell?' said he. 'Say—do I love thee, Nell, or no?'
The child only answered by her caresses, and laid her head upon his breast.
'Why dost thou sob?' said the grandfather, pressing her closer to him an_lancing towards me. 'Is it because thou know'st I love thee, and dost no_ike that I should seem to doubt it by my question? Well, well—then let us sa_ love thee dearly.'
'Indeed, indeed you do,' replied the child with great earnestness, 'Kit know_ou do.'
Kit, who in despatching his bread and meat had been swallowing two-thirds o_is knife at every mouthful with the coolness of a juggler, stopped short i_is operations on being thus appealed to, and bawled 'Nobody isn't such a foo_s to say he doosn't,' after which he incapacitated himself for furthe_onversation by taking a most prodigious sandwich at one bite.
'She is poor now'—said the old men, patting the child's cheek, 'but I sa_gain that the time is coming when she shall be rich. It has been a long tim_oming, but it must come at last; a very long time, but it surely must come.
It has come to other men who do nothing but waste and riot. When WILL it com_o me!'
'I am very happy as I am, grandfather,' said the child.
'Tush, tush!' returned the old man, 'thou dost not know—how should'st thou!'
then he muttered again between his teeth, 'The time must come, I am very sur_t must. It will be all the better for coming late'; and then he sighed an_ell into his former musing state, and still holding the child between hi_nees appeared to be insensible to everything around him. By this time i_anted but a few minutes of midnight and I rose to go, which recalled him t_imself.
'One moment, sir,' he said, 'Now, Kit—near midnight, boy, and you still here!
Get home, get home, and be true to your time in the morning, for there's wor_o do. Good night! There, bid him good night, Nell, and let him be gone!'
'Good night, Kit,' said the child, her eyes lighting up with merriment an_indness.'
'Good night, Miss Nell,' returned the boy.
'And thank this gentleman,' interposed the old man, 'but for whose care _ight have lost my little girl to-night.'
'No, no, master,' said Kit, 'that won't do, that won't.'
'What do you mean?' cried the old man.
'I'd have found her, master,' said Kit, 'I'd have found her. I'll bet that I'_ind her if she was above ground, I would, as quick as anybody, master. Ha, ha, ha!'
Once more opening his mouth and shutting his eyes, and laughing like _tentor, Kit gradually backed to the door, and roared himself out.
Free of the room, the boy was not slow in taking his departure; when he ha_one, and the child was occupied in clearing the table, the old man said:
'I haven't seemed to thank you, sir, for what you have done to-night, but I d_hank you humbly and heartily, and so does she, and her thanks are bette_orth than mine. I should be sorry that you went away, and thought I wa_nmindful of your goodness, or careless of her—I am not indeed.'
I was sure of that, I said, from what I had seen. 'But,' I added, 'may I as_ou a question?'
'Ay, sir,' replied the old man, 'What is it?'
'This delicate child,' said I, 'with so much beauty and intelligence—has sh_obody to care for her but you? Has she no other companion or advisor?'
'No,' he returned, looking anxiously in my face, 'no, and she wants no other.'
'But are you not fearful,' said I, 'that you may misunderstand a charge s_ender? I am sure you mean well, but are you quite certain that you know ho_o execute such a trust as this? I am an old man, like you, and I am actuate_y an old man's concern in all that is young and promising. Do you not thin_hat what I have seen of you and this little creature to-night must have a_nterest not wholly free from pain?'
'Sir,' rejoined the old man after a moment's silence.' I have no right to fee_urt at what you say. It is true that in many respects I am the child, and sh_he grown person—that you have seen already. But waking or sleeping, by nigh_r day, in sickness or health, she is the one object of my care, and if yo_new of how much care, you would look on me with different eyes, you woul_ndeed. Ah! It's a weary life for an old man—a weary, weary life—but there i_ great end to gain and that I keep before me.'
Seeing that he was in a state of excitement and impatience, I turned to put o_n outer coat which I had thrown off on entering the room, purposing to say n_ore. I was surprised to see the child standing patiently by with a cloak upo_er arm, and in her hand a hat, and stick.
'Those are not mine, my dear,' said I.
'No,' returned the child, 'they are grandfather's.'
'But he is not going out to-night.'
'Oh, yes, he is,' said the child, with a smile.
'And what becomes of you, my pretty one?'
'Me! I stay here of course. I always do.'
I looked in astonishment towards the old man, but he was, or feigned to be, busied in the arrangement of his dress. From him I looked back to the sligh_entle figure of the child. Alone! In that gloomy place all the long, drear_ight.
She evinced no consciousness of my surprise, but cheerfully helped the old ma_ith his cloak, and when he was ready took a candle to light us out. Findin_hat we did not follow as she expected, she looked back with a smile an_aited for us. The old man showed by his face that he plainly understood th_ause of my hesitation, but he merely signed to me with an inclination of th_ead to pass out of the room before him, and remained silent. I had n_esource but to comply.
When we reached the door, the child setting down the candle, turned to sa_ood night and raised her face to kiss me. Then she ran to the old man, wh_olded her in his arms and bade God bless her.
'Sleep soundly, Nell,' he said in a low voice, 'and angels guard thy bed! D_ot forget thy prayers, my sweet.'
'No, indeed,' answered the child fervently, 'they make me feel so happy!'
'That's well; I know they do; they should,' said the old man. 'Bless thee _undred times! Early in the morning I shall be home.'
'You'll not ring twice,' returned the child. 'The bell wakes me, even in th_iddle of a dream.'
With this, they separated. The child opened the door (now guarded by a shutte_hich I had heard the boy put up before he left the house) and with anothe_arewell whose clear and tender note I have recalled a thousand times, held i_ntil we had passed out. The old man paused a moment while it was gentl_losed and fastened on the inside, and satisfied that this was done, walked o_t a slow pace. At the street-corner he stopped, and regarding me with _roubled countenance said that our ways were widely different and that he mus_ake his leave. I would have spoken, but summoning up more alacrity than migh_ave been expected in one of his appearance, he hurried away. I could see tha_wice or thrice he looked back as if to ascertain if I were still watchin_im, or perhaps to assure himself that I was not following at a distance. Th_bscurity of the night favoured his disappearance, and his figure was soo_eyond my sight.
I remained standing on the spot where he had left me, unwilling to depart, an_et unknowing why I should loiter there. I looked wistfully into the street w_ad lately quitted, and after a time directed my steps that way. I passed an_epassed the house, and stopped and listened at the door; all was dark, an_ilent as the grave.
Yet I lingered about, and could not tear myself away, thinking of all possibl_arm that might happen to the child—of fires and robberies and even murder—an_eeling as if some evil must ensure if I turned my back upon the place. Th_losing of a door or window in the street brought me before the curiosity- dealer's once more; I crossed the road and looked up at the house to assur_yself that the noise had not come from there. No, it was black, cold, an_ifeless as before.
There were few passengers astir; the street was sad and dismal, and prett_ell my own. A few stragglers from the theatres hurried by, and now and then _urned aside to avoid some noisy drunkard as he reeled homewards, but thes_nterruptions were not frequent and soon ceased. The clocks struck one. Stil_ paced up and down, promising myself that every time should be the last, an_reaking faith with myself on some new plea as often as I did so.
The more I thought of what the old man had said, and of his looks and bearing, the less I could account for what I had seen and heard. I had a stron_isgiving that his nightly absence was for no good purpose. I had only come t_now the fact through the innocence of the child, and though the old man wa_y at the time, and saw my undisguised surprise, he had preserved a strang_ystery upon the subject and offered no word of explanation. These reflection_aturally recalled again more strongly than before his haggard face, hi_andering manner, his restless anxious looks. His affection for the chil_ight not be inconsistent with villany of the worst kind; even that ver_ffection was in itself an extraordinary contradiction, or how could he leav_er thus? Disposed as I was to think badly of him, I never doubted that hi_ove for her was real. I could not admit the thought, remembering what ha_assed between us, and the tone of voice in which he had called her by he_ame.
'Stay here of course,' the child had said in answer to my question, 'I alway_o!' What could take him from home by night, and every night! I called up al_he strange tales I had ever heard of dark and secret deeds committed in grea_owns and escaping detection for a long series of years; wild as many of thes_tories were, I could not find one adapted to this mystery, which only becam_he more impenetrable, in proportion as I sought to solve it.
Occupied with such thoughts as these, and a crowd of others all tending to th_ame point, I continued to pace the street for two long hours; at length th_ain began to descend heavily, and then over-powered by fatigue though no les_nterested than I had been at first, I engaged the nearest coach and so go_ome. A cheerful fire was blazing on the hearth, the lamp burnt brightly, m_lock received me with its old familiar welcome; everything was quiet, war_nd cheering, and in happy contrast to the gloom and darkness I had quitted.
But all that night, waking or in my sleep, the same thoughts recurred and th_ame images retained possession of my brain. I had ever before me the old dar_urky rooms—the gaunt suits of mail with their ghostly silent air—the face_ll awry, grinning from wood and stone—the dust and rust and worm that live_n wood—and alone in the midst of all this lumber and decay and ugly age, th_eautiful child in her gentle slumber, smiling through her light and sunn_reams.