Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 26

  • Almost broken-hearted, Nell withdrew with the schoolmaster from the bedsid_nd returned to his cottage. In the midst of her grief and tears she was ye_areful to conceal their real cause from the old man, for the dead boy ha_een a grandchild, and left but one aged relative to mourn his prematur_ecay.
  • She stole away to bed as quickly as she could, and when she was alone, gav_ree vent to the sorrow with which her breast was overcharged. But the sa_cene she had witnessed, was not without its lesson of content and gratitude; of content with the lot which left her health and freedom; and gratitude tha_he was spared to the one relative and friend she loved, and to live and mov_n a beautiful world, when so many young creatures—as young and full of hop_s she—were stricken down and gathered to their graves. How many of the mound_n that old churchyard where she had lately strayed, grew green above th_raves of children! And though she thought as a child herself, and did no_erhaps sufficiently consider to what a bright and happy existence those wh_ie young are borne, and how in death they lose the pain of seeing others di_round them, bearing to the tomb some strong affection of their hearts (whic_akes the old die many times in one long life), still she thought wisel_nough, to draw a plain and easy moral from what she had seen that night, an_o store it, deep in her mind.
  • Her dreams were of the little scholar: not coffined and covered up, bu_ingling with angels, and smiling happily. The sun darting his cheerful ray_nto the room, awoke her; and now there remained but to take leave of the poo_choolmaster and wander forth once more.
  • By the time they were ready to depart, school had begun. In the darkened room, the din of yesterday was going on again: a little sobered and softened down, perhaps, but only a very little, if at all. The schoolmaster rose from hi_esk and walked with them to the gate.
  • It was with a trembling and reluctant hand, that the child held out to him th_oney which the lady had given her at the races for her flowers: faltering i_er thanks as she thought how small the sum was, and blushing as she offere_t. But he bade her put it up, and stooping to kiss her cheek, turned bac_nto his house.
  • They had not gone half-a-dozen paces when he was at the door again; the ol_an retraced his steps to shake hands, and the child did the same.
  • 'Good fortune and happiness go with you!' said the poor schoolmaster. 'I a_uite a solitary man now. If you ever pass this way again, you'll not forge_he little village-school.'
  • 'We shall never forget it, sir,' rejoined Nell; 'nor ever forget to b_rateful to you for your kindness to us.'
  • 'I have heard such words from the lips of children very often,' said th_choolmaster, shaking his head, and smiling thoughtfully, 'but they were soo_orgotten. I had attached one young friend to me, the better friend for bein_oung—but that's over—God bless you!'
  • They bade him farewell very many times, and turned away, walking slowly an_ften looking back, until they could see him no more. At length they had lef_he village far behind, and even lost sight of the smoke among the trees. The_rudged onward now, at a quicker pace, resolving to keep the main road, and g_herever it might lead them.
  • But main roads stretch a long, long way. With the exception of two or thre_nconsiderable clusters of cottages which they passed, without stopping, an_ne lonely road-side public-house where they had some bread and cheese, thi_ighway had led them to nothing— late in the afternoon—and still lengthene_ut, far in the distance, the same dull, tedious, winding course, that the_ad been pursuing all day. As they had no resource, however, but to g_orward, they still kept on, though at a much slower pace, being very wear_nd fatigued.
  • The afternoon had worn away into a beautiful evening, when they arrived at _oint where the road made a sharp turn and struck across a common. On th_order of this common, and close to the hedge which divided it from th_ultivated fields, a caravan was drawn up to rest; upon which, by reason o_ts situation, they came so suddenly that they could not have avoided it i_hey would.
  • It was not a shabby, dingy, dusty cart, but a smart little house upon wheels, with white dimity curtains festooning the windows, and window-shutters o_reen picked out with panels of a staring red, in which happily-contraste_olours the whole concern shone brilliant. Neither was it a poor caravan draw_y a single donkey or emaciated horse, for a pair of horses in pretty goo_ondition were released from the shafts and grazing on the frouzy grass.
  • Neither was it a gipsy caravan, for at the open door (graced with a brigh_rass knocker) sat a Christian lady, stout and comfortable to look upon, wh_ore a large bonnet trembling with bows. And that it was not an unprovided o_estitute caravan was clear from this lady's occupation, which was the ver_leasant and refreshing one of taking tea. The tea-things, including a bottl_f rather suspicious character and a cold knuckle of ham, were set forth upo_ drum, covered with a white napkin; and there, as if at the most convenien_ound-table in all the world, sat this roving lady, taking her tea an_njoying the prospect.
  • It happened that at that moment the lady of the caravan had her cup (which, that everything about her might be of a stout and comfortable kind, was _reakfast cup) to her lips, and that having her eyes lifted to the sky in he_njoyment of the full flavour of the tea, not unmingled possibly with just th_lightest dash or gleam of something out of the suspicious bottle—but this i_ere speculation and not distinct matter of history—it happened that bein_hus agreeably engaged, she did not see the travellers when they first cam_p. It was not until she was in the act of getting down the cup, and drawing _ong breath after the exertion of causing its contents to disappear, that th_ady of the caravan beheld an old man and a young child walking slowly by, an_lancing at her proceedings with eyes of modest but hungry admiration.
  • 'Hey!' cried the lady of the caravan, scooping the crumbs out of her lap an_wallowing the same before wiping her lips. 'Yes, to be sure—Who won th_elter-Skelter Plate, child?'
  • 'Won what, ma'am?' asked Nell.
  • 'The Helter-Skelter Plate at the races, child—the plate that was run for o_he second day.'
  • 'On the second day, ma'am?'
  • 'Second day! Yes, second day,' repeated the lady with an air of impatience.
  • 'Can't you say who won the Helter-Skelter Plate when you're asked the questio_ivilly?'
  • 'I don't know, ma'am.'
  • 'Don't know!' repeated the lady of the caravan; 'why, you were there. I sa_ou with my own eyes.'
  • Nell was not a little alarmed to hear this, supposing that the lady might b_ntimately acquainted with the firm of Short and Codlin; but what followe_ended to reassure her.
  • 'And very sorry I was,' said the lady of the caravan, 'to see you in compan_ith a Punch; a low, practical, wulgar wretch, that people should scorn t_ook at.'
  • 'I was not there by choice,' returned the child; 'we didn't know our way, an_he two men were very kind to us, and let us travel with them. Do you—do yo_now them, ma'am?'
  • 'Know 'em, child!' cried the lady of the caravan in a sort of shriek. 'Kno_hem! But you're young and inexperienced, and that's your excuse for askin_ich a question. Do I look as if I know'd 'em, does the caravan look as if i_now'd 'em?'
  • 'No, ma'am, no,' said the child, fearing she had committed some grievou_ault. 'I beg your pardon.'
  • It was granted immediately, though the lady still appeared much ruffled an_iscomposed by the degrading supposition. The child then explained that the_ad left the races on the first day, and were travelling to the next town o_hat road, where they purposed to spend the night. As the countenance of th_tout lady began to clear up, she ventured to inquire how far it was. Th_eply—which the stout lady did not come to, until she had thoroughly explaine_hat she went to the races on the first day in a gig, and as an expedition o_leasure, and that her presence there had no connexion with any matters o_usiness or profit—was, that the town was eight miles off.
  • This discouraging information a little dashed the child, who could scarcel_epress a tear as she glanced along the darkening road. Her grandfather mad_o complaint, but he sighed heavily as he leaned upon his staff, and vainl_ried to pierce the dusty distance.
  • The lady of the caravan was in the act of gathering her tea equipage togethe_reparatory to clearing the table, but noting the child's anxious manner sh_esitated and stopped. The child curtseyed, thanked her for her information, and giving her hand to the old man had already got some fifty yards or s_way, when the lady of the caravan called to her to return.
  • 'Come nearer, nearer still,' said she, beckoning to her to ascend the steps.
  • 'Are you hungry, child?'
  • 'Not very, but we are tired, and it's—it IS a long way.'
  • 'Well, hungry or not, you had better have some tea,' rejoined her ne_cquaintance. 'I suppose you are agreeable to that, old gentleman?'
  • The grandfather humbly pulled off his hat and thanked her. The lady of th_aravan then bade him come up the steps likewise, but the drum proving a_nconvenient table for two, they descended again, and sat upon the grass, where she handed down to them the tea-tray, the bread and butter, the knuckl_f ham, and in short everything of which she had partaken herself, except th_ottle which she had already embraced an opportunity of slipping into he_ocket.
  • 'Set 'em out near the hind wheels, child, that's the best place,' said thei_riend, superintending the arrangements from above. 'Now hand up the teapo_or a little more hot water, and a pinch of fresh tea, and then both of yo_at and drink as much as you can, and don't spare anything; that's all I as_f you.'
  • They might perhaps have carried out the lady's wish, if it had been les_reely expressed, or even if it had not been expressed at all. But as thi_irection relieved them from any shadow of delicacy or uneasiness, they made _earty meal and enjoyed it to the utmost.
  • While they were thus engaged, the lady of the caravan alighted on the earth, and with her hands clasped behind her, and her large bonnet tremblin_xcessively, walked up and down in a measured tread and very stately manner, surveying the caravan from time to time with an air of calm delight, an_eriving particular gratification from the red panels and the brass knocker.
  • When she had taken this gentle exercise for some time, she sat down upon th_teps and called 'George'; whereupon a man in a carter's frock, who had bee_o shrouded in a hedge up to this time as to see everything that passe_ithout being seen himself, parted the twigs that concealed him, and appeare_n a sitting attitude, supporting on his legs a baking-dish and a half-gallo_tone bottle, and bearing in his right hand a knife, and in his left a fork.
  • 'Yes, Missus,' said George.
  • 'How did you find the cold pie, George?'
  • 'It warn't amiss, mum.'
  • 'And the beer,' said the lady of the caravan, with an appearance of being mor_nterested in this question than the last; 'is it passable, George?'
  • 'It's more flatterer than it might be,' George returned, 'but it an't so ba_or all that.'
  • To set the mind of his mistress at rest, he took a sip (amounting in quantit_o a pint or thereabouts) from the stone bottle, and then smacked his lips, winked his eye, and nodded his head. No doubt with the same amiable desire, h_mmediately resumed his knife and fork, as a practical assurance that the bee_ad wrought no bad effect upon his appetite.
  • The lady of the caravan looked on approvingly for some time, and then said,
  • 'Have you nearly finished?'
  • 'Wery nigh, mum.' And indeed, after scraping the dish all round with his knif_nd carrying the choice brown morsels to his mouth, and after taking such _cientific pull at the stone bottle that, by degrees almost imperceptible t_he sight, his head went further and further back until he lay nearly at hi_ull length upon the ground, this gentleman declared himself quite disengaged, and came forth from his retreat.
  • 'I hope I haven't hurried you, George,' said his mistress, who appeared t_ave a great sympathy with his late pursuit.
  • 'If you have,' returned the follower, wisely reserving himself for an_avourable contingency that might occur, 'we must make up for it next time, that's all.'
  • 'We are not a heavy load, George?'
  • 'That's always what the ladies say,' replied the man, looking a long wa_ound, as if he were appealing to Nature in general against such monstrou_ropositions. 'If you see a woman a driving, you'll always perceive that sh_ever will keep her whip still; the horse can't go fast enough for her. I_attle have got their proper load, you never can persuade a woman that they'l_ot bear something more. What is ' the cause of this here?'
  • 'Would these two travellers make much difference to the horses, if we too_hem with us?' asked his mistress, offering no reply to the philosophica_nquiry, and pointing to Nell and the old man, who were painfully preparing t_esume their journey on foot.
  • 'They'd make a difference in course,' said George doggedly.
  • 'Would they make much difference?' repeated his mistress. 'They can't be ver_eavy.'
  • 'The weight o' the pair, mum,' said George, eyeing them with the look of a ma_ho was calculating within half an ounce or so, 'would be a trifle under tha_f Oliver Cromwell."
  • Nell was very much surprised that the man should be so accurately acquainte_ith the weight of one whom she had read of in books as having live_onsiderably before their time, but speedily forgot the subject in the joy o_earing that they were to go forward in the caravan, for which she thanked it_ady with unaffected earnestness. She helped with great readiness and alacrit_o put away the tea-things and other matters that were lying about, and, th_orses being by that time harnessed, mounted into the vehicle, followed by he_elighted grandfather. Their patroness then shut the door and sat herself dow_y her drum at an open window; and, the steps being struck by George an_towed under the carriage, away they went, with a great noise of flapping an_reaking and straining, and the bright brass knocker, which nobody eve_nocked at, knocking one perpetual double knock of its own accord as the_olted heavily along.