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.