After a long time, the schoolmaster appeared at the wicket-gate of th_hurchyard, and hurried towards them, Tingling in his hand, as he came along, a bundle of rusty keys. He was quite breathless with pleasure and haste whe_e reached the porch, and at first could only point towards the old buildin_hich the child had been contemplating so earnestly.
'You see those two old houses,' he said at last.
'Yes, surely,' replied Nell. 'I have been looking at them nearly all the tim_ou have been away.'
'And you would have looked at them more curiously yet, if you could hav_uessed what I have to tell you,' said her friend. 'One of those houses i_ine.'
Without saying any more, or giving the child time to reply, the schoolmaste_ook her hand, and, his honest face quite radiant with exultation, led her t_he place of which he spoke.
They stopped before its low arched door. After trying several of the keys i_ain, the schoolmaster found one to fit the huge lock, which turned back, creaking, and admitted them into the house.
The room into which they entered was a vaulted chamber once nobly ornamente_y cunning architects, and still retaining, in its beautiful groined roof an_ich stone tracery, choice remnants of its ancient splendour. Foliage carve_n the stone, and emulating the mastery of Nature's hand, yet remained to tel_ow many times the leaves outside had come and gone, while it lived o_nchanged. The broken figures supporting the burden of the chimney-piece, though mutilated, were still distinguishable for what they had been—fa_ifferent from the dust without—and showed sadly by the empty hearth, lik_reatures who had outlived their kind, and mourned their own too slow decay.
In some old time—for even change was old in that old place—a wooden partitio_ad been constructed in one part of the chamber to form a sleeping-closet, into which the light was admitted at the same period by a rude window, o_ather niche, cut in the solid wall. This screen, together with two seats i_he broad chimney, had at some forgotten date been part of the church o_onvent; for the oak, hastily appropriated to its present purpose, had bee_ittle altered from its former shape, and presented to the eye a pile o_ragments of rich carving from old monkish stalls.
An open door leading to a small room or cell, dim with the light that cam_hrough leaves of ivy, completed the interior of this portion of the ruin. I_as not quite destitute of furniture. A few strange chairs, whose arms an_egs looked as though they had dwindled away with age; a table, the ver_pectre of its race: a great old chest that had once held records in th_hurch, with other quaintly-fashioned domestic necessaries, and store of fire- wood for the winter, were scattered around, and gave evident tokens of it_ccupation as a dwelling-place at no very distant time.
The child looked around her, with that solemn feeling with which w_ontemplate the work of ages that have become but drops of water in the grea_cean of eternity. The old man had followed them, but they were all thre_ushed for a space, and drew their breath softly, as if they feared to brea_he silence even by so slight a sound.
'It is a very beautiful place!' said the child, in a low voice.
'I almost feared you thought otherwise,' returned the schoolmaster. 'Yo_hivered when we first came in, as if you felt it cold or gloomy.'
'It was not that,' said Nell, glancing round with a slight shudder. 'Indeed _annot tell you what it was, but when I saw the outside, from the churc_orch, the same feeling came over me. It is its being so old and gre_erhaps.'
'A peaceful place to live in, don't you think so)' said her friend.
'Oh yes,' rejoined the child, clasping her hands earnestly. 'A quiet, happ_lace—a place to live and learn to die in!' She would have said more, but tha_he energy of her thoughts caused her voice to falter, and come in tremblin_hispers from her lips.
'A place to live, and learn to live, and gather health of mind and body in,'
said the schoolmaster; 'for this old house is yours.'
'Ours!' cried the child.
'Ay,' returned the schoolmaster gaily, 'for many a merry year to come, I hope.
I shall be a close neighbour—only next door—but this house is yours.'
Having now disburdened himself of his great surprise, the schoolmaster sa_own, and drawing Nell to his side, told her how he had learnt that ancien_enement had been occupied for a very long time by an old person, nearly _undred years of age, who kept the keys of the church, opened and closed i_or the services, and showed it to strangers; how she had died not many week_go, and nobody had yet been found to fill the office; how, learning all thi_n an interview with the sexton, who was confined to his bed by rheumatism, h_ad been bold to make mention of his fellow-traveller, which had been s_avourably received by that high authority, that he had taken courage, actin_n his advice, to propound the matter to the clergyman. In a word, the resul_f his exertions was, that Nell and her grandfather were to be carried befor_he last-named gentleman next day; and, his approval of their conduct an_ppearance reserved as a matter of form, that they were already appointed t_he vacant post.
'There's a small allowance of money,' said the schoolmaster. 'It is not much, but still enough to live upon in this retired spot. By clubbing our fund_ogether, we shall do bravely; no fear of that.'
'Heaven bless and prosper you!' sobbed the child.
'Amen, my dear,' returned her friend cheerfully; 'and all of us, as it will, and has, in leading us through sorrow and trouble to this tranquil life. Bu_e must look at MY house now. Come!'
They repaired to the other tenement; tried the rusty keys as before; at lengt_ound the right one; and opened the worm-eaten door. It led into a chamber, vaulted and old, like that from which they had come, but not so spacious, an_aving only one other little room attached. It was not difficult to divin_hat the other house was of right the schoolmaster's, and that he had chose_or himself the least commodious, in his care and regard for them. Like th_djoining habitation, it held such old articles of furniture as wer_bsolutely necessary, and had its stack of fire-wood.
To make these dwellings as habitable and full of comfort as they could, wa_ow their pleasant care. In a short time, each had its cheerful fire glowin_nd crackling on the hearth, and reddening the pale old wall with a hale an_ealthy blush. Nell, busily plying her needle, repaired the tattered window- hangings, drew together the rents that time had worn in the threadbare scrap_f carpet, and made them whole and decent. The schoolmaster swept and smoothe_he ground before the door, trimmed the long grass, trained the ivy an_reeping plants which hung their drooping heads in melancholy neglect; an_ave to the outer walls a cheery air of home. The old man, sometimes by hi_ide and sometimes with the child, lent his aid to both, went here and ther_n little patient services, and was happy. Neighbours, too, as they came fro_ork, proffered their help; or sent their children with such small presents o_oans as the strangers needed most. It was a busy day; and night came on, an_ound them wondering that there was yet so much to do, and that it should b_ark so soon.
They took their supper together, in the house which may be henceforth calle_he child's; and, when they had finished their meal, drew round the fire, an_lmost in whispers—their hearts were too quiet and glad for lou_xpression—discussed their future plans. Before they separated, th_choolmaster read some prayers aloud; and then, full of gratitude an_appiness, they parted for the night.
At that silent hour, when her grandfather was sleeping peacefully in his bed, and every sound was hushed, the child lingered before the dying embers, an_hought of her past fortunes as if they had been a dream And she only no_woke. The glare of the sinking flame, reflected in the oaken panels whos_arved tops were dimly seen in the dusky roof—the aged walls, where strang_hadows came and went with every flickering of the fire—the solemn presence, within, of that decay which falls on senseless things the most enduring i_heir nature: and, without, and round about on every side, of Death—filled he_ith deep and thoughtful feelings, but with none of terror or alarm. A chang_ad been gradually stealing over her, in the time of her loneliness an_orrow. With failing strength and heightening resolution, there had sprung u_ purified and altered mind; there had grown in her bosom blessed thoughts an_opes, which are the portion of few but the weak and drooping. There were non_o see the frail, perishable figure, as it glided from the fire and leane_ensively at the open casement; none but the stars, to look into the upturne_ace and read its history. The old church bell rang out the hour with _ournful sound, as if it had grown sad from so much communing with the dea_nd unheeded warning to the living; the fallen leaves rustled; the gras_tirred upon the graves; all else was still and sleeping.
Some of those dreamless sleepers lay close within the shadow of th_hurch—touching the wall, as if they clung to it for comfort and protection.
Others had chosen to lie beneath the changing shade of trees; others by th_ath, that footsteps might come near them; others, among the graves of littl_hildren. Some had desired to rest beneath the very ground they had trodden i_heir daily walks; some, where the setting sun might shine upon their beds; some, where its light would fall upon them when it rose. Perhaps not one o_he imprisoned souls had been able quite to separate itself in living though_rom its old companion. If any had, it had still felt for it a love like tha_hich captives have been known to bear towards the cell in which they hav_een long confined, and, even at parting, hung upon its narrow bound_ffectionately.
It was long before the child closed the window, and approached her bed. Agai_omething of the same sensation as before—an involuntary chill—a momentar_eeling akin to fear—but vanishing directly, and leaving no alarm behind.
Again, too, dreams of the little scholar; of the roof opening, and a column o_right faces, rising far away into the sky, as she had seen in some ol_criptural picture once, and looking down on her, asleep. It was a sweet an_appy dream. The quiet spot, outside, seemed to remain the same, saving tha_here was music in the air, and a sound of angels' wings. After a time th_isters came there, hand in hand, and stood among the graves. And then th_ream grew dim, and faded.
With the brightness and joy of morning, came the renewal of yesterday'_abours, the revival of its pleasant thoughts, the restoration of it_nergies, cheerfulness, and hope. They worked gaily in ordering and arrangin_heir houses until noon, and then went to visit the clergyman.
He was a simple-hearted old gentleman, of a shrinking, subdued spirit, accustomed to retirement, and very little acquainted with the world, which h_ad left many years before to come and settle in that place. His wife had die_n the house in which he still lived, and he had long since lost sight of an_arthly cares or hopes beyond it.
He received them very kindly, and at once showed an interest in Nell; askin_er name, and age, her birthplace, the circumstances which had led her there, and so forth. The schoolmaster had already told her story. They had no othe_riends or home to leave, he said, and had come to share his fortunes. H_oved the child as though she were his own.
'Well, well,' said the clergyman. 'Let it be as you desire. She is ver_oung.' 'Old in adversity and trial, sir,' replied the schoolmaster.
'God help her. Let her rest, and forget them,' said the old gentleman. 'But a_ld church is a dull and gloomy place for one so young as you, my child.'
'Oh no, sir,' returned Nell. 'I have no such thoughts, indeed.'
'I would rather see her dancing on the green at nights,' said the ol_entleman, laying his hand upon her head, and smiling sadly, 'than have he_itting in the shadow of our mouldering arches. You must look to this, and se_hat her heart does not grow heavy among these solemn ruins. Your request i_ranted, friend.'
After more kind words, they withdrew, and repaired to the child's house; wher_hey were yet in conversation on their happy fortune, when another frien_ppeared.
This was a little old gentleman, who lived in the parsonage-house, and ha_esided there (so they learnt soon afterwards) ever since the death of th_lergyman's wife, which had happened fifteen years before. He had been hi_ollege friend and always his close companion; in the first shock of his grie_e had come to console and comfort him; and from that time they had neve_arted company. The little old gentleman was the active spirit of the place, the adjuster of all differences, the promoter of all merry-makings, th_ispenser of his friend's bounty, and of no small charity of his own besides; the universal mediator, comforter, and friend. None of the simple villager_ad cared to ask his name, or, when they knew it, to store it in their memory.
Perhaps from some vague rumour of his college honours which had been whispere_broad on his first arrival, perhaps because he was an unmarried, unencumbere_entleman, he had been called the bachelor. The name pleased him, or suite_im as well as any other, and the Bachelor he had ever since remained. And th_achelor it was, it may be added, who with his own hands had laid in the stoc_f fuel which the wanderers had found in their new habitation.
The bachelor, then—to call him by his usual appellation—lifted the latch, showed his little round mild face for a moment at the door, and stepped int_he room like one who was no stranger to it.
'You are Mr Marton, the new schoolmaster?' he said, greeting Nell's kin_riend.
'I am, sir.'
'You come well recommended, and I am glad to see you. I should have been i_he way yesterday, expecting you, but I rode across the country to carry _essage from a sick mother to her daughter in service some miles off, and hav_ut just now returned. This is our young church-keeper? You are not the les_elcome, friend, for her sake, or for this old man's; nor the worse teache_or having learnt humanity.' 'She has been ill, sir, very lately,' said th_choolmaster, in answer to the look with which their visitor regarded Nel_hen he had kissed her cheek.
'Yes, yes. I know she has,' he rejoined. 'There have been suffering an_eartache here.'
'Indeed there have, sir.'
The little old gentleman glanced at the grandfather, and back again at th_hild, whose hand he took tenderly in his, and held.
'You will be happier here,' he said; 'we will try, at least, to make you so.
You have made great improvements here already. Are they the work of you_ands?'
'We may make some others—not better in themselves, but with better mean_erhaps,' said the bachelor. 'Let us see now, let us see.'
Nell accompanied him into the other little rooms, and over both the houses, i_hich he found various small comforts wanting, which he engaged to supply fro_ certain collection of odds and ends he had at home, and which must have bee_ very miscellaneous and extensive one, as it comprehended the most opposit_rticles imaginable. They all came, however, and came without loss of time; for the little old gentleman, disappearing for some five or ten minutes, presently returned, laden with old shelves, rugs, blankets, and othe_ousehold gear, and followed by a boy bearing a similar load. These being cas_n the floor in a promiscuous heap, yielded a quantity of occupation i_rranging, erecting, and putting away; the superintendence of which tas_vidently afforded the old gentleman extreme delight, and engaged him for som_ime with great briskness and activity. When nothing more was left to be done, he charged the boy to run off and bring his schoolmates to be marshalle_efore their new master, and solemnly reviewed.
'As good a set of fellows, Marton, as you'd wish to see,' he said, turning t_he schoolmaster when the boy was gone; 'but I don't let 'em know I think so.
That wouldn't do, at all.'
The messenger soon returned at the head of a long row of urchins, great an_mall, who, being confronted by the bachelor at the house door, fell int_arious convulsions of politeness; clutching their hats and caps, squeezin_hem into the smallest possible dimensions, and making all manner of bows an_crapes, which the little old gentleman contemplated with excessiv_atisfaction, and expressed his approval of by a great many nods and smiles.
Indeed, his approbation of the boys was by no means so scrupulously disguise_s he had led the schoolmaster to suppose, inasmuch as it broke out in sundr_oud whispers and confidential remarks which were perfectly audible to the_very one. 'This first boy, schoolmaster,' said the bachelor, 'is John Owen; _ad of good parts, sir, and frank, honest temper; but too thoughtless, to_layful, too light-headed by far. That boy, my good sir, would break his nec_ith pleasure, and deprive his parents of their chief comfort—and betwee_urselves, when you come to see him at hare and hounds, taking the fence an_itch by the finger-post, and sliding down the face of the little quarry, you'll never forget it. It's beautiful!'
John Owen having been thus rebuked, and being in perfect possession of th_peech aside, the bachelor singled out another boy.
'Now, look at that lad, sir,' said the bachelor. 'You see that fellow? Richar_vans his name is, sir. An amazing boy to learn, blessed with a good memory, and a ready understanding, and moreover with a good voice and ear for psalm- singing, in which he is the best among us. Yet, sir, that boy will come to _ad end; he'll never die in his bed; he's always falling asleep in sermon- time— and to tell you the truth, Mr Marton, I always did the same at his age, and feel quite certain that it was natural to my constitution and I couldn'_elp it.'
This hopeful pupil edified by the above terrible reproval, the bachelor turne_o another.
'But if we talk of examples to be shunned,' said he, 'if we come to boys tha_hould be a warning and a beacon to all their fellows, here's the one, and _ope you won't spare him. This is the lad, sir; this one with the blue eye_nd light hair. This is a swimmer, sir, this fellow—a diver, Lord save us!
This is a boy, sir, who had a fancy for plunging into eighteen feet of water, with his clothes on, and bringing up a blind man's dog, who was being drowne_y the weight of his chain and collar, while his master stood wringing hi_ands upon the bank, bewailing the loss of his guide and friend. I sent th_oy two guineas anonymously, sir,' added the bachelor, in his peculia_hisper, 'directly I heard of it; but never mention it on any account, for h_asn't the least idea that it came from me. '
Having disposed of this culprit, the bachelor turned to another, and from hi_o another, and so on through the whole array, laying, for their wholesom_estriction within due bounds, the same cutting emphasis on such of thei_ropensities as were dearest to his heart and were unquestionably referrabl_o his own precept and example. Thoroughly persuaded, in the end, that he ha_ade them miserable by his severity, he dismissed them with a small present, and an admonition to walk quietly home, without any leapings, scufflings, o_urnings out of the way; which injunction, he informed the schoolmaster in th_ame audible confidence, he did not think he could have obeyed when he was _oy, had his life depended on it.
Hailing these little tokens of the bachelor's disposition as so man_ssurances of his own welcome course from that time, the schoolmaster parte_rom him with a light heart and joyous spirits, and deemed himself one of th_appiest men on earth. The windows of the two old houses were ruddy again, that night, with the reflection of the cheerful fires that burnt within; an_he bachelor and his friend, pausing to look upon them as they returned fro_heir evening walk, spoke softly together of the beautiful child, and looke_ound upon the churchyard with a sigh.