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Chapter 25

  • After a sound night's rest in a chamber in the thatched roof, in which i_eemed the sexton had for some years been a lodger, but which he had latel_eserted for a wife and a cottage of his own, the child rose early in th_orning and descended to the room where she had supped last night. As th_choolmaster had already left his bed and gone out, she bestirred herself t_ake it neat and comfortable, and had just finished its arrangement when th_ind host returned.
  • He thanked her many times, and said that the old dame who usually did suc_ffices for him had gone to nurse the little scholar whom he had told her of.
  • The child asked how he was, and hoped he was better.
  • 'No,' rejoined the schoolmaster shaking his head sorrowfully, 'no better. The_ven say he is worse.'
  • 'I am very sorry for that, Sir,' said the child.
  • The poor schoolmaster appeared to be gratified by her earnest manner, but ye_endered more uneasy by it, for he added hastily that anxious people ofte_agnified an evil and thought it greater than it was; 'for my part,' he said, in his quiet, patient way, 'I hope it's not so. I don't think he can b_orse.'
  • The child asked his leave to prepare breakfast, and her grandfather comin_own stairs, they all three partook of it together. While the meal was i_rogress, their host remarked that the old man seemed much fatigued, an_vidently stood in need of rest.
  • 'If the journey you have before you is a long one,' he said, 'and don't pres_ou for one day, you're very welcome to pass another night here. I shoul_eally be glad if you would, friend.'
  • He saw that the old man looked at Nell, uncertain whether to accept or declin_is offer; and added,
  • 'I shall be glad to have your young companion with me for one day. If you ca_o a charity to a lone man, and rest yourself at the same time, do so. If yo_ust proceed upon your journey, I wish you well through it, and will walk _ittle way with you before school begins.'
  • 'What are we to do, Nell?' said the old man irresolutely, 'say what we're t_o, dear.'
  • It required no great persuasion to induce the child to answer that they ha_etter accept the invitation and remain. She was happy to show her gratitud_o the kind schoolmaster by busying herself in the performance of suc_ousehold duties as his little cottage stood in need of. When these were done, she took some needle-work from her basket, and sat herself down upon a stoo_eside the lattice, where the honeysuckle and woodbine entwined their tende_tems, and stealing into the room filled it with their delicious breath. He_randfather was basking in the sun outside, breathing the perfume of th_lowers, and idly watching the clouds as they floated on before the ligh_ummer wind.
  • As the schoolmaster, after arranging the two forms in due order, took his sea_ehind his desk and made other preparations for school, the child wa_pprehensive that she might be in the way, and offered to withdraw to he_ittle bedroom. But this he would not allow, and as he seemed pleased to hav_er there, she remained, busying herself with her work.
  • 'Have you many scholars, sir?' she asked.
  • The poor schoolmaster shook his head, and said that they barely filled the tw_orms.
  • 'Are the others clever, sir?' asked the child, glancing at the trophies on th_all.
  • 'Good boys,' returned the schoolmaster, 'good boys enough, my dear, bu_hey'll never do like that.'
  • A small white-headed boy with a sunburnt face appeared at the door while h_as speaking, and stopping there to make a rustic bow, came in and took hi_eat upon one of the forms. The white-headed boy then put an open book, astonishingly dog's-eared upon his knees, and thrusting his hands into hi_ockets began counting the marbles with which they were filled; displaying i_he expression of his face a remarkable capacity of totally abstracting hi_ind from the spelling on which his eyes were fixed. Soon afterwards anothe_hite-headed little boy came straggling in, and after him a red-headed lad, and after him two more with white heads, and then one with a flaxen poll, an_o on until the forms were occupied by a dozen boys or thereabouts, with head_f every colour but grey, and ranging in their ages from four years old t_ourteen years or more; for the legs of the youngest were a long way from th_loor when he sat upon the form, and the eldest was a heavy good-tempere_oolish fellow, about half a head taller than the schoolmaster.
  • At the top of the first form—the post of honour in the school— was the vacan_lace of the little sick scholar, and at the head of the row of pegs on whic_hose who came in hats or caps were wont to hang them up, one was left empty.
  • No boy attempted to violate the sanctity of seat or peg, but many a one looke_rom the empty spaces to the schoolmaster, and whispered his idle neighbou_ehind his hand.
  • Then began the hum of conning over lessons and getting them by heart, th_hispered jest and stealthy game, and all the noise and drawl of school; an_n the midst of the din sat the poor schoolmaster, the very image of meeknes_nd simplicity, vainly attempting to fix his mind upon the duties of the day, and to forget his little friend. But the tedium of his office reminded hi_ore strongly of the willing scholar, and his thoughts were rambling from hi_upils—it was plain.
  • None knew this better than the idlest boys, who, growing bolder with impunity, waxed louder and more daring; playing odd-or-even under the master's eye, eating apples openly and without rebuke, pinching each other in sport o_alice without the least reserve, and cutting their autographs in the ver_egs of his desk. The puzzled dunce, who stood beside it to say his lesson ou_f book, looked no longer at the ceiling for forgotten words, but drew close_o the master's elbow and boldly cast his eye upon the page; the wag of th_ittle troop squinted and made grimaces (at the smallest boy of course), holding no book before his face, and his approving audience knew no constrain_n their delight. If the master did chance to rouse himself and seem alive t_hat was going on, the noise subsided for a moment and no eyes met his bu_ore a studious and a deeply humble look; but the instant he relapsed again, it broke out afresh, and ten times louder than before.
  • Oh! how some of those idle fellows longed to be outside, and how they looke_t the open door and window, as if they half meditated rushing violently out, plunging into the woods, and being wild boys and savages from that time forth.
  • What rebellious thoughts of the cool river, and some shady bathing-plac_eneath willow trees with branches dipping in the water, kept tempting an_rging that sturdy boy, who, with his shirt-collar unbuttoned and flung bac_s far as it could go, sat fanning his flushed face with a spelling-book, wishing himself a whale, or a tittlebat, or a fly, or anything but a boy a_chool on that hot, broiling day! Heat! ask that other boy, whose seat bein_earest to the door gave him opportunities of gliding out into the garden an_riving his companions to madness by dipping his face into the bucket of th_ell and then rolling on the grass—ask him if there were ever such a day a_hat, when even the bees were diving deep down into the cups of flowers an_topping there, as if they had made up their minds to retire from business an_e manufacturers of honey no more. The day was made for laziness, and lying o_ne's back in green places, and staring at the sky till its brightness force_ne to shut one's eyes and go to sleep; and was this a time to be poring ove_usty books in a dark room, slighted by the very sun itself? Monstrous!
  • Nell sat by the window occupied with her work, but attentive still to all tha_assed, though sometimes rather timid of the boisterous boys. The lesson_ver, writing time began; and there being but one desk and that the master's, each boy sat at it in turn and laboured at his crooked copy, while the maste_alked about. This was a quieter time; for he would come and look over th_riter's shoulder, and tell him mildly to observe how such a letter was turne_n such a copy on the wall, praise such an up-stroke here and such a down- stroke there, and bid him take it for his model. Then he would stop and tel_hem what the sick child had said last night, and how he had longed to b_mong them once again; and such was the poor schoolmaster's gentle an_ffectionate manner, that the boys seemed quite remorseful that they ha_orried him so much, and were absolutely quiet; eating no apples, cutting n_ames, inflicting no pinches, and making no grimaces, for full two minute_fterwards.
  • 'I think, boys,' said the schoolmaster when the clock struck twelve, 'that _hall give an extra half-holiday this afternoon.'
  • At this intelligence, the boys, led on and headed by the tall boy, raised _reat shout, in the midst of which the master was seen to speak, but could no_e heard. As he held up his hand, however, in token of his wish that the_hould be silent, they were considerate enough to leave off, as soon as th_ongest-winded among them were quite out of breath.
  • 'You must promise me first,' said the schoolmaster, 'that you'll not be noisy, or at least, if you are, that you'll go away and be so—away out of the villag_ mean. I'm sure you wouldn't disturb your old playmate and companion.'
  • There was a general murmur (and perhaps a very sincere one, for they were bu_oys) in the negative; and the tall boy, perhaps as sincerely as any of them, called those about him to witness that he had only shouted in a whisper.
  • 'Then pray don't forget, there's my dear scholars,' said the schoolmaster,
  • 'what I have asked you, and do it as a favour to me. Be as happy as you can, and don't be unmindful that you are blessed with health. Good-bye all!'
  • 'Thank'ee, Sir,' and 'good-bye, Sir,' were said a good many times in a variet_f voices, and the boys went out very slowly and softly. But there was the su_hining and there were the birds singing, as the sun only shines and the bird_nly sing on holidays and half-holidays; there were the trees waving to al_ree boys to climb and nestle among their leafy branches; the hay, entreatin_hem to come and scatter it to the pure air; the green corn, gently beckonin_owards wood and stream; the smooth ground, rendered smoother still b_lending lights and shadows, inviting to runs and leaps, and long walks Go_nows whither. It was more than boy could bear, and with a joyous whoop th_hole cluster took to their heels and spread themselves about, shouting an_aughing as they went.
  • 'It's natural, thank Heaven!' said the poor schoolmaster, looking after them.
  • 'I'm very glad they didn't mind me!'
  • It is difficult, however, to please everybody, as most of us would hav_iscovered, even without the fable which bears that moral, and in the cours_f the afternoon several mothers and aunts of pupils looked in to expres_heir entire disapproval of the schoolmaster's proceeding. A few confine_hemselves to hints, such as politely inquiring what red-letter day or saint'_ay the almanack said it was; a few (these were the profound villag_oliticians) argued that it was a slight to the throne and an affront t_hurch and state, and savoured of revolutionary principles, to grant a half- holiday upon any lighter occasion than the birthday of the Monarch; but th_ajority expressed their displeasure on private grounds and in plain terms, arguing that to put the pupils on this short allowance of learning was nothin_ut an act of downright robbery and fraud: and one old lady, finding that sh_ould not inflame or irritate the peaceable schoolmaster by talking to him, bounced out of his house and talked at him for half-an-hour outside his ow_indow, to another old lady, saying that of course he would deduct this half- holiday from his weekly charge, or of course he would naturally expect to hav_n opposition started against him; there was no want of idle chaps in tha_eighbourhood (here the old lady raised her voice), and some chaps who wer_oo idle even to be schoolmasters, might soon find that there were other chap_ut over their heads, and so she would have them take care, and look prett_harp about them. But all these taunts and vexations failed to elicit one wor_rom the meek schoolmaster, who sat with the child by his side—a little mor_ejected perhaps, but quite silent and uncomplaining.
  • Towards night an old woman came tottering up the garden as speedily as sh_ould, and meeting the schoolmaster at the door, said he was to go to Dam_est's directly, and had best run on before her. He and the child were on th_oint of going out together for a walk, and without relinquishing her hand, the schoolmaster hurried away, leaving the messenger to follow as she might.
  • They stopped at a cottage-door, and the schoolmaster knocked softly at it wit_is hand. It was opened without loss of time. They entered a room where _ittle group of women were gathered about one, older than the rest, who wa_rying very bitterly, and sat wringing her hands and rocking herself to an_ro.
  • 'Oh, dame!' said the schoolmaster, drawing near her chair, 'is it so bad a_his?'
  • 'He's going fast,' cried the old woman; 'my grandson's dying. It's all alon_f you. You shouldn't see him now, but for his being so earnest on it. This i_hat his learning has brought him to. Oh dear, dear, dear, what can I do!'
  • 'Do not say that I am in any fault,' urged the gentle school- master. 'I a_ot hurt, dame. No, no. You are in great distress of mind, and don't mean wha_ou say. I am sure you don't.'
  • 'I do,' returned the old woman. 'I mean it all. If he hadn't been poring ove_is books out of fear of you, he would have been well and merry now, I know h_ould.'
  • The schoolmaster looked round upon the other women as if to entreat some on_mong them to say a kind word for him, but they shook their heads, an_urmured to each other that they never thought there was much good i_earning, and that this convinced them. Without saying a word in reply, o_iving them a look of reproach, he followed the old woman who had summoned him (and who had now rejoined them) into another room, where his infant friend, half-dressed, lay stretched upon a bed.
  • He was a very young boy; quite a little child. His hair still hung in curl_bout his face, and his eyes were very bright; but their light was of Heaven, not earth. The schoolmaster took a seat beside him, and stooping over th_illow, whispered his name. The boy sprung up, stroked his face with his hand, and threw his wasted arms round his neck, crying out that he was his dear kin_riend.
  • 'I hope I always was. I meant to be, God knows,' said the poor schoolmaster.
  • 'Who is that?' said the boy, seeing Nell. 'I am afraid to kiss her, lest _hould make her ill. Ask her to shake hands with me.' The sobbing child cam_loser up, and took the little languid hand in hers. Releasing his again afte_ time, the sick boy laid him gently down.
  • 'You remember the garden, Harry,' whispered the schoolmaster, anxious to rous_im, for a dulness seemed gathering upon the child, 'and how pleasant it use_o be in the evening time? You must make haste to visit it again, for I thin_he very flowers have missed you, and are less gay than they used to be. Yo_ill come soon, my dear, very soon now—won't you?'
  • The boy smiled faintly—so very, very faintly—and put his hand upon hi_riend's grey head. He moved his lips too, but no voice came from them; no, not a sound.
  • In the silence that ensued, the hum of distant voices borne upon the evenin_ir came floating through the open window. 'What's that?' said the sick child, opening his eyes.
  • 'The boys at play upon the green.'
  • He took a handkerchief from his pillow, and tried to wave it above his head.
  • But the feeble arm dropped powerless down.
  • 'Shall I do it?' said the schoolmaster.
  • 'Please wave it at the window,' was the faint reply. 'Tie it to the lattice.
  • Some of them may see it there. Perhaps they'll think of me, and look thi_ay.'
  • He raised his head, and glanced from the fluttering signal to his idle bat, that lay with slate and book and other boyish property upon a table in th_oom. And then he laid him softly down once more, and asked if the little gir_ere there, for he could not see her.
  • She stepped forward, and pressed the passive hand that lay upon the coverlet.
  • The two old friends and companions—for such they were, though they were ma_nd child—held each other in a long embrace, and then the little schola_urned his face towards the wall, and fell asleep.
  • The poor schoolmaster sat in the same place, holding the small cold hand i_is, and chafing it. It was but the hand of a dead child. He felt that; an_et he chafed it still, and could not lay it down.