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.