It behoves us to leave Kit for a while, thoughtful and expectant, and t_ollow the fortunes of little Nell; resuming the thread of the narrative a_he point where it was left, some chapters back.
In one of those wanderings in the evening time, when, following the tw_isters at a humble distance, she felt, in her sympathy with them and he_ecognition in their trials of something akin to her own loneliness of spirit, a comfort and consolation which made such moments a time of deep delight, though the softened pleasure they yielded was of that kind which lives an_ies in tears—in one of those wanderings at the quiet hour of twilight, whe_ky, and earth, and air, and rippling water, and sound of distant bells, claimed kindred with the emotions of the solitary child, and inspired her wit_oothing thoughts, but not of a child's world or its easy joys—in one of thos_ambles which had now become her only pleasure or relief from care, light ha_aded into darkness and evening deepened into night, and still the youn_reature lingered in the gloom; feeling a companionship in Nature so seren_nd still, when noise of tongues and glare of garish lights would have bee_olitude indeed.
The sisters had gone home, and she was alone. She raised her eyes to th_right stars, looking down so mildly from the wide worlds of air, and, gazin_n them, found new stars burst upon her view, and more beyond, and more beyon_gain, until the whole great expanse sparkled with shining spheres, risin_igher and higher in immeasurable space, eternal in their numbers as in thei_hangeless and incorruptible existence. She bent over the calm river, and sa_hem shining in the same majestic order as when the dove beheld them gleamin_hrough the swollen waters, upon the mountain tops down far below, and dea_ankind, a million fathoms deep.
The child sat silently beneath a tree, hushed in her very breath by th_tillness of the night, and all its attendant wonders. The time and plac_woke reflection, and she thought with a quiet hope— less hope, perhaps, tha_esignation—on the past, and present, and what was yet before her. Between th_ld man and herself there had come a gradual separation, harder to bear tha_ny former sorrow. Every evening, and often in the day-time too, he wa_bsent, alone; and although she well knew where he went, and why— too wel_rom the constant drain upon her scanty purse and from his haggard looks—h_vaded all inquiry, maintained a strict reserve, and even shunned he_resence.
She sat meditating sorrowfully upon this change, and mingling it, as it were, with everything about her, when the distant church-clock bell struck nine.
Rising at the sound, she retraced her steps, and turned thoughtfully toward_he town.
She had gained a little wooden bridge, which, thrown across the stream, le_nto a meadow in her way, when she came suddenly upon a ruddy light, an_ooking forward more attentively, discerned that it proceeded from wha_ppeared to be an encampment of gipsies, who had made a fire in one corner a_o great distance from the path, and were sitting or lying round it. As sh_as too poor to have any fear of them, she did not alter her course (which, indeed, she could not have done without going a long way round), but quickene_er pace a little, and kept straight on.
A movement of timid curiosity impelled her, when she approached the spot, t_lance towards the fire. There was a form between it and her, the outlin_trongly developed against the light, which caused her to stop abruptly. Then, as if she had reasoned with herself and were assured that it could not be, o_ad satisfied herself that it was not that of the person she had supposed, sh_ent on again.
But at that instant the conversation, whatever it was, which had been carryin_n near this fire was resumed, and the tones of the voice that spoke—she coul_ot distinguish words—sounded as familiar to her as her own.
She turned, and looked back. The person had been seated before, but was now i_ standing posture, and leaning forward on a stick on which he rested bot_ands. The attitude was no less familiar to her than the tone of voice ha_een. It was her grandfather.
Her first impulse was to call to him; her next to wonder who his associate_ould be, and for what purpose they were together. Some vague apprehensio_ucceeded, and, yielding to the strong inclination it awakened, she dre_earer to the place; not advancing across the open field, however, bu_reeping towards it by the hedge.
In this way she advanced within a few feet of the fire, and standing among _ew young trees, could both see and hear, without much danger of bein_bserved.
There were no women or children, as she had seen in other gipsy camps they ha_assed in their wayfaring, and but one gipsy—a tall athletic man, who stoo_ith his arms folded, leaning against a tree at a little distance off, lookin_ow at the fire, and now, under his black eyelashes, at three other men wh_ere there, with a watchful but half-concealed interest in their conversation.
Of these, her grandfather was one; the others she recognised as the firs_ard-players at the public-house on the eventful night of the storm—the ma_hom they had called Isaac List, and his gruff companion. One of the low, arched gipsy-tents, common to that people, was pitched hard by, but it eithe_as, or appeared to be, empty.
'Well, are you going?' said the stout man, looking up from the ground where h_as lying at his ease, into her grandfather's face. 'You were in a might_urry a minute ago. Go, if you like. You're your own master, I hope?'
'Don't vex him,' returned Isaac List, who was squatting like a frog on th_ther side of the fire, and had so screwed himself up that he seemed to b_quinting all over; 'he didn't mean any offence.'
'You keep me poor, and plunder me, and make a sport and jest of me besides,'
said the old man, turning from one to the other. 'Ye'll drive me mad amon_e.'
The utter irresolution and feebleness of the grey-haired child, contraste_ith the keen and cunning looks of those in whose hands he was, smote upon th_ittle listener's heart. But she constrained herself to attend to all tha_assed, and to note each look and word.
'Confound you, what do you mean?' said the stout man rising a little, an_upporting himself on his elbow. 'Keep you poor! You'd keep us poor if yo_ould, wouldn't you? That's the way with you whining, puny, pitiful players.
When you lose, you're martyrs; but I don't find that when you win, you loo_pon the other losers in that light. As to plunder!' cried the fellow, raisin_is voice— 'Damme, what do you mean by such ungentlemanly language as plunder, eh?'
The speaker laid himself down again at full length, and gave one or two short, angry kicks, as if in further expression of his unbounded indignation. It wa_uite plain that he acted the bully, and his friend the peacemaker, for som_articular purpose; or rather, it would have been to any one but the weak ol_an; for they exchanged glances quite openly, both with each other and wit_he gipsy, who grinned his approval of the jest until his white teeth shon_gain.
The old man stood helplessly among them for a little time, and then said, turning to his assailant:
'You yourself were speaking of plunder just now, you know. Don't be so violen_ith me. You were, were you not?'
'Not of plundering among present company! Honour among—among gentlemen, Sir,'
returned the other, who seemed to have been very near giving an awkwar_ermination to the sentence.
'Don't be hard upon him, Jowl,' said Isaac List. 'He's very sorry for givin_ffence. There—go on with what you were saying—go on.'
'I'm a jolly old tender-hearted lamb, I am,' cried Mr Jowl, 'to be sittin_ere at my time of life giving advice when I know it won't be taken, and tha_ shall get nothing but abuse for my pains. But that's the way I've gon_hrough life. Experience has never put a chill upon my warm-heartedness.'
'I tell you he's very sorry, don't I?' remonstrated Isaac List, 'and that h_ishes you'd go on.'
'Does he wish it?' said the other.
'Ay,' groaned the old man sitting down, and rocking himself to and fro. 'G_n, go on. It's in vain to fight with it; I can't do it; go on.'
'I go on then,' said Jowl, 'where I left off, when you got up so quick. I_ou're persuaded that it's time for luck to turn, as it certainly is, and fin_hat you haven't means enough to try it (and that's where it is, for you know, yourself, that you never have the funds to keep on long enough at a sitting), help yourself to what seems put in your way on purpose. Borrow it, I say, and, when you're able, pay it back again.'
'Certainly,' Isaac List struck in, 'if this good lady as keeps the wax-work_as money, and does keep it in a tin box when she goes to bed, and doesn'_ock her door for fear of fire, it seems a easy thing; quite a Providence, _hould call it—but then I've been religiously brought up.'
'You see, Isaac,' said his friend, growing more eager, and drawing himsel_loser to the old man, while he signed to the gipsy not to come between them;
'you see, Isaac, strangers are going in and out every hour of the day; nothin_ould be more likely than for one of these strangers to get under the goo_ady's bed, or lock himself in the cupboard; suspicion would be very wide, an_ould fall a long way from the mark, no doubt. I'd give him his revenge to th_ast farthing he brought, whatever the amount was.'
'But could you?' urged Isaac List. 'Is your bank strong enough?'
'Strong enough!' answered the other, with assumed disdain. 'Here, you Sir, give me that box out of the straw!'
This was addressed to the gipsy, who crawled into the low tent on all fours, and after some rummaging and rustling returned with a cash-box, which the ma_ho had spoken opened with a key he wore about his person.
'Do you see this?' he said, gathering up the money in his hand and letting i_rop back into the box, between his fingers, like water. 'Do you hear it? D_ou know the sound of gold? There, put it back—and don't talk about bank_gain, Isaac, till you've got one of your own.'
Isaac List, with great apparent humility, protested that he had never doubte_he credit of a gentleman so notorious for his honourable dealing as Mr Jowl, and that he had hinted at the production of the box, not for the satisfactio_f his doubts, for he could have none, but with a view to being regaled with _ight of so much wealth, which, though it might be deemed by some but a_nsubstantial and visionary pleasure, was to one in his circumstances a sourc_f extreme delight, only to be surpassed by its safe depository in his ow_ersonal pockets. Although Mr List and Mr Jowl addressed themselves to eac_ther, it was remarkable that they both looked narrowly at the old man, who, with his eyes fixed upon the fire, sat brooding over it, yet listenin_agerly— as it seemed from a certain involuntary motion of the head, o_witching of the face from time to time—to all they said.
'My advice,' said Jowl, lying down again with a careless air, 'is plain—I hav_iven it, in fact. I act as a friend. Why should I help a man to the mean_erhaps of winning all I have, unless I considered him my friend? It'_oolish, I dare say, to be so thoughtful of the welfare of other people, bu_hat's my constitution, and I can't help it; so don't blame me, Isaac List.'
'I blame you!' returned the person addressed; 'not for the world, Mr Jowl. _ish I could afford to be as liberal as you; and, as you say, he might pay i_ack if he won—and if he lost—'
'You're not to take that into consideration at all,' said Jowl.
'But suppose he did (and nothing's less likely, from all I know of chances), why, it's better to lose other people's money than one's own, I hope?'
'Ah!' cried Isaac List rapturously, 'the pleasures of winning! The delight o_icking up the money—the bright, shining yellow-boys— and sweeping 'em int_ne's pocket! The deliciousness of having a triumph at last, and thinking tha_ne didn't stop short and turn back, but went half-way to meet it! The—bu_ou're not going, old gentleman?'
'I'll do it,' said the old man, who had risen and taken two or three hurrie_teps away, and now returned as hurriedly. 'I'll have it, every penny.'
'Why, that's brave,' cried Isaac, jumping up and slapping him on the shoulder;
'and I respect you for having so much young blood left. Ha, ha, ha! Joe Jowl'_alf sorry he advised you now. We've got the laugh against him. Ha, ha, ha!'
'He gives me my revenge, mind,' said the old man, pointing to him eagerly wit_is shrivelled hand: 'mind—he stakes coin against coin, down to the last on_n the box, be there many or few. Remember that!'
'I'm witness,' returned Isaac. 'I'll see fair between you.'
'I have passed my word,' said Jowl with feigned reluctance, 'and I'll keep it.
When does this match come off? I wish it was over.— To-night?'
'I must have the money first,' said the old man; 'and that I'll have to- morrow—'
'Why not to-night?' urged Jowl.
'It's late now, and I should be flushed and flurried,' said the old man. 'I_ust be softly done. No, to-morrow night.'
'Then to-morrow be it,' said Jowl. 'A drop of comfort here. Luck to the bes_an! Fill!' The gipsy produced three tin cups, and filled them to the bri_ith brandy. The old man turned aside and muttered to himself before he drank.
Her own name struck upon the listener's ear, coupled with some wish s_ervent, that he seemed to breathe it in an agony of supplication.
'God be merciful to us!' cried the child within herself, 'and help us in thi_rying hour! What shall I do to save him!'
The remainder of their conversation was carried on in a lower tone of voice, and was sufficiently concise; relating merely to the execution of the project, and the best precautions for diverting suspicion. The old man then shook hand_ith his tempters, and withdrew.
They watched his bowed and stooping figure as it retreated slowly, and when h_urned his head to look back, which he often did, waved their hands, o_houted some brief encouragement. It was not until they had seen him graduall_iminish into a mere speck upon the distant road, that they turned to eac_ther, and ventured to laugh aloud.
'So,' said Jowl, warming his hands at the fire, 'it's done at last. He wante_ore persuading than I expected. It's three weeks ago, since we first put thi_n his head. What'll he bring, do you think?'
'Whatever he brings, it's halved between us,' returned Isaac List.
The other man nodded. 'We must make quick work of it,' he said, 'and then cu_is acquaintance, or we may be suspected. Sharp's the word.'
List and the gipsy acquiesced. When they had all three amused themselves _ittle with their victim's infatuation, they dismissed the subject as on_hich had been sufficiently discussed, and began to talk in a jargon which th_hild did not understand. As their discourse appeared to relate to matters i_hich they were warmly interested, however, she deemed it the best time fo_scaping unobserved; and crept away with slow and cautious steps, keeping i_he shadow of the hedges, or forcing a path through them or the dry ditches, until she could emerge upon the road at a point beyond their range of vision.
Then she fled homeward as quickly as she could, torn and bleeding from th_ounds of thorns and briars, but more lacerated in mind, and threw hersel_pon her bed, distracted.
The first idea that flashed upon her mind was flight, instant flight; draggin_im from that place, and rather dying of want upon the roadside, than eve_xposing him again to such terrible temptations. Then, she remembered that th_rime was not to be committed until next night, and there was the intermediat_ime for thinking, and resolving what to do. Then, she was distracted with _orrible fear that he might be committing it at that moment; with a dread o_earing shrieks and cries piercing the silence of the night; with fearfu_houghts of what he might be tempted and led on to do, if he were detected i_he act, and had but a woman to struggle with. It was impossible to bear suc_orture. She stole to the room where the money was, opened the door, an_ooked in. God be praised! He was not there, and she was sleeping soundly.
She went back to her own room, and tried to prepare herself for bed. But wh_ould sleep—sleep! who could lie passively down, distracted by such terrors?
They came upon her more and more strongly yet. Half undressed, and with he_air in wild disorder, she flew to the old man's bedside, clasped him by th_rist, and roused him from his sleep.
'What's this!' he cried, starting up in bed, and fixing his eyes upon he_pectral face.
'I have had a dreadful dream,' said the child, with an energy that nothing bu_uch terrors could have inspired. 'A dreadful, horrible dream. I have had i_nce before. It is a dream of grey-haired men like you, in darkened rooms b_ight, robbing sleepers of their gold. Up, up!'
The old man shook in every joint, and folded his hands like one who prays.
'Not to me,' said the child, 'not to me—to Heaven, to save us from such deeds!
This dream is too real. I cannot sleep, I cannot stay here, I cannot leave yo_lone under the roof where such dreams come. Up! We must fly.'
He looked at her as if she were a spirit—she might have been for all the loo_f earth she had—and trembled more and more.
'There is no time to lose; I will not lose one minute,' said the child. 'Up!
and away with me!'
'To-night?' murmured the old man.
'Yes, to-night,' replied the child. 'To-morrow night will be too late. Th_ream will have come again. Nothing but flight can save us. Up!'
The old man rose from his bed: his forehead bedewed with the cold sweat o_ear: and, bending before the child as if she had been an angel messenger sen_o lead him where she would, made ready to follow her. She took him by th_and and led him on. As they passed the door of the room he had proposed t_ob, she shuddered and looked up into his face. What a white face was that, and with what a look did he meet hers!
She took him to her own chamber, and, still holding him by the hand as if sh_eared to lose him for an instant, gathered together the little stock she had, and hung her basket on her arm. The old man took his wallet from her hands an_trapped it on his shoulders— his staff, too, she had brought away—and the_he led him forth.
Through the strait streets, and narrow crooked outskirts, their trembling fee_assed quickly. Up the steep hill too, crowned by the old grey castle, the_oiled with rapid steps, and had not once looked behind.
But as they drew nearer the ruined walls, the moon rose in all her gentl_lory, and, from their venerable age, garlanded with ivy, moss, and wavin_rass, the child looked back upon the sleeping town, deep in the valley'_hade: and on the far-off river with its winding track of light: and on th_istant hills; and as she did so, she clasped the hand she held, less firmly, and bursting into tears, fell upon the old man's neck.