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Chapter 52

  • 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?'
  • 'Yes, sir.'
  • '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.