It was the poor schoolmaster. No other than the poor schoolmaster. Scarcel_ess moved and surprised by the sight of the child than she had been o_ecognising him, he stood, for a moment, silent and confounded by thi_nexpected apparition, without even the presence of mind to raise her from th_round.
But, quickly recovering his self-possession, he threw down his stick and book, and dropping on one knee beside her, endeavoured, by such simple means a_ccurred to him, to restore her to herself; while her grandfather, standin_dly by, wrung his hands, and implored her with many endearing expressions t_peak to him, were it only a word.
'She is quite exhausted,' said the schoolmaster, glancing upward into hi_ace. 'You have taxed her powers too far, friend.'
'She is perishing of want,' rejoined the old man. 'I never thought how wea_nd ill she was, till now.'
Casting a look upon him, half-reproachful and half-compassionate, th_choolmaster took the child in his arms, and, bidding the old man gather u_er little basket and follow him directly, bore her away at his utmost speed.
There was a small inn within sight, to which, it would seem, he had bee_irecting his steps when so unexpectedly overtaken. Towards this place h_urried with his unconscious burden, and rushing into the kitchen, and callin_pon the company there assembled to make way for God's sake, deposited it on _hair before the fire.
The company, who rose in confusion on the schoolmaster's entrance, did a_eople usually do under such circumstances. Everybody called for his or he_avourite remedy, which nobody brought; each cried for more air, at the sam_ime carefully excluding what air there was, by closing round the object o_ympathy; and all wondered why somebody else didn't do what it never appeare_o occur to them might be done by themselves.
The landlady, however, who possessed more readiness and activity than any o_hem, and who had withal a quicker perception of the merits of the case, soo_ame running in, with a little hot brandy and water, followed by her servant- girl, carrying vinegar, hartshorn, smelling-salts, and such othe_estoratives; which, being duly administered, recovered the child so far as t_nable her to thank them in a faint voice, and to extend her hand to the poo_choolmaster, who stood, with an anxious face, hard by. Without suffering he_o speak another word, or so much as to stir a finger any more, the wome_traightway carried her off to bed; and, having covered her up warm, bathe_er cold feet, and wrapped them in flannel, they despatched a messenger fo_he doctor.
The doctor, who was a red-nosed gentleman with a great bunch of seals danglin_elow a waistcoat of ribbed black satin, arrived with all speed, and takin_is seat by the bedside of poor Nell, drew out his watch, and felt her pulse.
Then he looked at her tongue, then he felt her pulse again, and while he di_o, he eyed the half-emptied wine-glass as if in profound abstraction.
'I should give her,' said the doctor at length, 'a tea-spoonful, every now an_hen, of hot brandy and water.'
'Why, that's exactly what we've done, sir!' said the delighted landlady.
'I should also,' observed the doctor, who had passed the foot-bath on th_tairs, 'I should also,' said the doctor, in the voice of an oracle, 'put he_eet in hot water, and wrap them up in flannel. I should likewise,' said th_octor with increased solemnity, 'give her something light for supper—the win_f a roasted fowl now—'
'Why, goodness gracious me, sir, it's cooking at the kitchen fire thi_nstant!' cried the landlady. And so indeed it was, for the schoolmaster ha_rdered it to be put down, and it was getting on so well that the doctor migh_ave smelt it if he had tried; perhaps he did.
'You may then,' said the doctor, rising gravely, 'give her a glass of ho_ulled port wine, if she likes wine—'
'And a toast, Sir?' suggested the landlady. 'Ay,' said the doctor, in the ton_f a man who makes a dignified concession. 'And a toast—of bread. But be ver_articular to make it of bread, if you please, ma'am.'
With which parting injunction, slowly and portentously delivered, the docto_eparted, leaving the whole house in admiration of that wisdom which tallie_o closely with their own. Everybody said he was a very shrewd doctor indeed, and knew perfectly what people's constitutions were; which there appears som_eason to suppose he did.
While her supper was preparing, the child fell into a refreshing sleep, fro_hich they were obliged to rouse her when it was ready. As she evince_xtraordinary uneasiness on learning that her grandfather was below stairs, and as she was greatly troubled at the thought of their being apart, he too_is supper with her. Finding her still very restless on this head, they mad_im up a bed in an inner room, to which he presently retired. The key of thi_hamber happened by good fortune to be on that side of the door which was i_ell's room; she turned it on him when the landlady had withdrawn, and crep_o bed again with a thankful heart.
The schoolmaster sat for a long time smoking his pipe by the kitchen fire, which was now deserted, thinking, with a very happy face, on the fortunat_hance which had brought him so opportunely to the child's assistance, an_arrying, as well as in his simple way he could, the inquisitive cross- examination of the landlady, who had a great curiosity to be made acquainte_ith every particular of Nell's life and history. The poor schoolmaster was s_pen-hearted, and so little versed in the most ordinary cunning or deceit, that she could not have failed to succeed in the first five minutes, but tha_e happened to be unacquainted with what she wished to know; and so he tol_er. The landlady, by no means satisfied with this assurance, which sh_onsidered an ingenious evasion of the question, rejoined that he had hi_easons of course. Heaven forbid that she should wish to pry into the affair_f her customers, which indeed were no business of hers, who had so many o_er own. She had merely asked a civil question, and to be sure she knew i_ould meet with a civil answer. She was quite satisfied—quite. She had rathe_erhaps that he would have said at once that he didn't choose to b_ommunicative, because that would have been plain and intelligible. However, she had no right to be offended of course. He was the best judge, and had _erfect right to say what he pleased; nobody could dispute that for a moment.
Oh dear, no!
'I assure you, my good lady,' said the mild schoolmaster, 'that I have tol_ou the plain truth. As I hope to be saved, I have told you the truth.'
'Why then, I do believe you are in earnest,' rejoined the landlady, with read_ood-humour, 'and I'm very sorry I have teazed you. But curiosity you know i_he curse of our sex, and that's the fact.' The landlord scratched his head, as if he thought the curse sometimes involved the other sex likewise; but h_as prevented from making any remark to that effect, if he had it i_ontemplation to do so, by the schoolmaster's rejoinder.
'You should question me for half-a-dozen hours at a sitting, and welcome, an_ would answer you patiently for the kindness of heart you have shown to- night, if I could,' he said. 'As it is, please to take care of her in th_orning, and let me know early how she is; and to understand that I a_aymaster for the three.'
So, parting with them on most friendly terms (not the less cordial perhaps fo_his last direction), the schoolmaster went to his bed, and the host an_ostess to theirs.
The report in the morning was, that the child was better, but was extremel_eak, and would at least require a day's rest, and careful nursing, before sh_ould proceed upon her journey. The schoolmaster received this communicatio_ith perfect cheerfulness, observing that he had a day to spare—two days fo_hat matter— and could very well afford to wait. As the patient was to sit u_n the evening, he appointed to visit her in her room at a certain hour, an_ambling out with his book, did not return until the hour arrived.
Nell could not help weeping when they were left alone; whereat, and at sigh_f her pale face and wasted figure, the simple schoolmaster shed a few tear_imself, at the same time showing in very energetic language how foolish i_as to do so, and how very easily it could be avoided, if one tried.
'It makes me unhappy even in the midst of all this kindness' said the child,
'to think that we should be a burden upon you. How can I ever thank you? If _ad not met you so far from home, I must have died, and he would have bee_eft alone.'
'We'll not talk about dying,' said the schoolmaster; 'and as to burdens, _ave made my fortune since you slept at my cottage.'
'Indeed!' cried the child joyfully.
'Oh yes,' returned her friend. 'I have been appointed clerk and schoolmaste_o a village a long way from here—and a long way from the old one as you ma_uppose—at five-and-thirty pounds a year. Five-and-thirty pounds!'
'I am very glad,' said the child, 'so very, very glad.'
'I am on my way there now,' resumed the schoolmaster. 'They allowed me th_tage-coach-hire—outside stage-coach-hire all the way. Bless you, they grudg_e nothing. But as the time at which I am expected there, left me ampl_eisure, I determined to walk instead. How glad I am, to think I did so!'
'How glad should we be!'
'Yes, yes,' said the schoolmaster, moving restlessly in his chair, 'certainly, that's very true. But you—where are you going, where are you coming from, wha_ave you been doing since you left me, what had you been doing before? Now, tell me—do tell me. I know very little of the world, and perhaps you ar_etter fitted to advise me in its affairs than I am qualified to give advic_o you; but I am very sincere, and I have a reason (you have not forgotten it) for loving you. I have felt since that time as if my love for him who died, had been transferred to you who stood beside his bed. If this,' he added, looking upwards, 'is the beautiful creation that springs from ashes, let it_eace prosper with me, as I deal tenderly and compassionately by this youn_hild!'
The plain, frank kindness of the honest schoolmaster, the affectionat_arnestness of his speech and manner, the truth which was stamped upon hi_very word and look, gave the child a confidence in him, which the utmost art_f treachery and dissimulation could never have awakened in her breast. Sh_old him all—that they had no friend or relative—that she had fled with th_ld man, to save him from a madhouse and all the miseries he dreaded—that sh_as flying now, to save him from himself— and that she sought an asylum i_ome remote and primitive place, where the temptation before which he fel_ould never enter, and her late sorrows and distresses could have no place.
The schoolmaster heard her with astonishment. 'This child!'—he thought—'Ha_his child heroically persevered under all doubts and dangers, struggled wit_overty and suffering, upheld and sustained by strong affection and th_onsciousness of rectitude alone! And yet the world is full of such heroism.
Have I yet to learn that the hardest and best-borne trials are those which ar_ever chronicled in any earthly record, and are suffered every day! And shoul_ be surprised to hear the story of this child!'
What more he thought or said, matters not. It was concluded that Nell and he_randfather should accompany him to the village whither he was bound, and tha_e should endeavour to find them some humble occupation by which they coul_ubsist. 'We shall be sure to succeed,' said the schoolmaster, heartily. 'Th_ause is too good a one to fail.'
They arranged to proceed upon their journey next evening, as a stage-waggon, which travelled for some distance on the same road as they must take, woul_top at the inn to change horses, and the driver for a small gratuity woul_ive Nell a place inside. A bargain was soon struck when the waggon came; an_n due time it rolled away; with the child comfortably bestowed among th_ofter packages, her grandfather and the schoolmaster walking on beside th_river, and the landlady and all the good folks of the inn screaming out thei_ood wishes and farewells.
What a soothing, luxurious, drowsy way of travelling, to lie inside tha_lowly-moving mountain, listening to the tinkling of the horses' bells, th_ccasional smacking of the carter's whip, the smooth rolling of the grea_road wheels, the rattle of the harness, the cheery good-nights of passin_ravellers jogging past on little short-stepped horses—all made pleasantl_ndistinct by the thick awning, which seemed made for lazy listening under, till one fell asleep! The very going to sleep, still with an indistinct idea, as the head jogged to and fro upon the pillow, of moving onward with n_rouble or fatigue, and hearing all these sounds like dreamy music, lulling t_he senses—and the slow waking up, and finding one's self staring out throug_he breezy curtain half-opened in the front, far up into the cold bright sk_ith its countless stars, and downward at the driver's lantern dancing on lik_ts namesake Jack of the swamps and marshes, and sideways at the dark gri_rees, and forward at the long bare road rising up, up, up, until it stoppe_bruptly at a sharp high ridge as if there were no more road, and all beyon_as sky—and the stopping at the inn to bait, and being helped out, and goin_nto a room with fire and candles, and winking very much, and being agreeabl_eminded that the night was cold, and anxious for very comfort's sake to thin_t colder than it was!—What a delicious journey was that journey in th_aggon.
Then the going on again—so fresh at first, and shortly afterwards so sleepy.
The waking from a sound nap as the mail came dashing past like a highwa_omet, with gleaming lamps and rattling hoofs, and visions of a guard behind, standing up to keep his feet warm, and of a gentleman in a fur cap opening hi_yes and looking wild and stupefied—the stopping at the turnpike where the ma_as gone to bed, and knocking at the door until he answered with a smothere_hout from under the bed-clothes in the little room above, where the fain_ight was burning, and presently came down, night-capped and shivering, t_hrow the gate wide open, and wish all waggons off the road except by day. Th_old sharp interval between night and morning—the distant streak of ligh_idening and spreading, and turning from grey to white, and from white t_ellow, and from yellow to burning red—the presence of day, with all it_heerfulness and life—men and horses at the plough—birds in the trees an_edges, and boys in solitary fields, frightening them away with rattles. Th_oming to a town—people busy in the markets; light carts and chaises round th_avern yard; tradesmen standing at their doors; men running horses up and dow_he street for sale; pigs plunging and grunting in the dirty distance, gettin_ff with long strings at their legs, running into clean chemists' shops an_eing dislodged with brooms by 'prentices; the night coach changing horses—th_assengers cheerless, cold, ugly, and discontented, with three months' growt_f hair in one night—the coachman fresh as from a band-box, and exquisitel_eautiful by contrast:—so much bustle, so many things in motion, such _ariety of incidents—when was there a journey with so many delights as tha_ourney in the waggon!
Sometimes walking for a mile or two while her grandfather rode inside, an_ometimes even prevailing upon the schoolmaster to take her place and lie dow_o rest, Nell travelled on very happily until they came to a large town, wher_he waggon stopped, and where they spent a night. They passed a large church; and in the streets were a number of old houses, built of a kind of earth o_laster, crossed and re-crossed in a great many directions with black beams, which gave them a remarkable and very ancient look. The doors, too, wer_rched and low, some with oaken portals and quaint benches, where the forme_nhabitants had sat on summer evenings. The windows were latticed in littl_iamond panes, that seemed to wink and blink upon the passengers as if the_ere dim of sight. They had long since got clear of the smoke and furnaces, except in one or two solitary instances, where a factory planted among field_ithered the space about it, like a burning mountain. When they had passe_hrough this town, they entered again upon the country, and began to draw nea_heir place of destination.
It was not so near, however, but that they spent another night upon the road; not that their doing so was quite an act of necessity, but that th_choolmaster, when they approached within a few miles of his village, had _idgety sense of his dignity as the new clerk, and was unwilling to make hi_ntry in dusty shoes, and travel-disordered dress. It was a fine, clear, autumn morning, when they came upon the scene of his promotion, and stopped t_ontemplate its beauties.
'See—here's the church!' cried the delighted schoolmaster in a low voice; 'an_hat old building close beside it, is the school- house, I'll be sworn. Five- and-thirty pounds a-year in this beautiful place!'
They admired everything—the old grey porch, the mullioned windows, th_enerable gravestones dotting the green churchyard, the ancient tower, th_ery weathercock; the brown thatched roofs of cottage, barn, and homestead, peeping from among the trees; the stream that rippled by the distant water- mill; the blue Welsh mountains far away. It was for such a spot the child ha_earied in the dense, dark, miserable haunts of labour. Upon her bed of ashes, and amidst the squalid horrors through which they had forced their way, visions of such scenes—beautiful indeed, but not more beautiful than thi_weet reality—had been always present to her mind. They had seemed to mel_nto a dim and airy distance, as the prospect of ever beholding them agai_rew fainter; but, as they receded, she had loved and panted for them more.
'I must leave you somewhere for a few minutes,' said the schoolmaster, a_ength breaking the silence into which they had fallen in their gladness. '_ave a letter to present, and inquiries to make, you know. Where shall I tak_ou? To the little inn yonder?'
'Let us wait here,' rejoined Nell. 'The gate is open. We will sit in th_hurch porch till you come back.'
'A good place too,' said the schoolmaster, leading the way towards it, disencumbering himself of his portmanteau, and placing it on the stone seat.
'Be sure that I come back with good news, and am not long gone!'
So, the happy schoolmaster put on a bran-new pair of gloves which he ha_arried in a little parcel in his pocket all the way, and hurried off, full o_rdour and excitement.
The child watched him from the porch until the intervening foliage hid hi_rom her view, and then stepped softly out into the old churchyard—so solem_nd quiet that every rustle of her dress upon the fallen leaves, which strewe_he path and made her footsteps noiseless, seemed an invasion of its silence.
It was a very aged, ghostly place; the church had been built many hundreds o_ears ago, and had once had a convent or monastery attached; for arches i_uins, remains of oriel windows, and fragments of blackened walls, were ye_tanding-, while other portions of the old building, which had crumbled awa_nd fallen down, were mingled with the churchyard earth and overgrown wit_rass, as if they too claimed a burying-place and sought to mix their ashe_ith the dust of men. Hard by these gravestones of dead years, and forming _art of the ruin which some pains had been taken to render habitable in moder_imes, were two small dwellings with sunken windows and oaken doors, fas_astening to decay, empty and desolate.
Upon these tenements, the attention of the child became exclusively riveted.
She knew not why. The church, the ruin, the antiquated graves, had equa_laims at least upon a stranger's thoughts, but from the moment when her eye_irst rested on these two dwellings, she could turn to nothing else. Even whe_he had made the circuit of the enclosure, and, returning to the porch, sa_ensively waiting for their friend, she took her station where she could stil_ook upon them, and felt as if fascinated towards that spot.