Day broke, and found them still upon their way. Since leaving home, they ha_alted here and there for necessary refreshment, and had frequently bee_elayed, especially in the night time, by waiting for fresh horses. They ha_ade no other stoppages, but the weather continued rough, and the roads wer_ften steep and heavy. It would be night again before they reached their plac_f destination.
Kit, all bluff and hardened with the cold, went on manfully; and, havin_nough to do to keep his blood circulating, to picture to himself the happ_nd of this adventurous journey, and to look about him and be amazed a_verything, had little spare time for thinking of discomforts. Though hi_mpatience, and that of his fellow-travellers, rapidly increased as the da_aned, the hours did not stand still. The short daylight of winter soon fade_way, and it was dark again when they had yet many miles to travel.
As it grew dusk, the wind fell; its distant moanings were more low an_ournful; and, as it came creeping up the road, and rattling covertly amon_he dry brambles on either hand, it seemed like some great phantom for who_he way was narrow, whose garments rustled as it stalked along. By degrees i_ulled and died away, and then it came on to snow.
The flakes fell fast and thick, soon covering the ground some inches deep, an_preading abroad a solemn stillness. The rolling wheels were noiseless, an_he sharp ring and clatter of the horses' hoofs, became a dull, muffled tramp.
The life of their progress seemed to be slowly hushed, and something death- like to usurp its place.
Shading his eyes from the falling snow, which froze upon their lashes an_bscured his sight, Kit often tried to catch the earliest glimpse of twinklin_ights, denoting their approach to some not distant town. He could descr_bjects enough at such times, but none correctly. Now, a tall church spir_ppeared in view, which presently became a tree, a barn, a shadow on th_round, thrown on it by their own bright lamps. Now, there were horsemen, foot-passengers, carriages, going on before, or meeting them in narrow ways; which, when they were close upon them, turned to shadows too. A wall, a ruin, a sturdy gable end, would rise up in the road; and, when they were plungin_eadlong at it, would be the road itself. Strange turnings too, bridges, an_heets of water, appeared to start up here and there, making the way doubtfu_nd uncertain; and yet they were on the same bare road, and these things, lik_he others, as they were passed, turned into dim illusions.
He descended slowly from his seat—for his limbs were numbed— when they arrive_t a lone posting-house, and inquired how far they had to go to reach thei_ourney's end. It was a late hour in such by-places, and the people were abed; but a voice answered from an upper window, Ten miles. The ten minutes tha_nsued appeared an hour; but at the end of that time, a shivering figure le_ut the horses they required, and after another brief delay they were again i_otion. It was a cross-country road, full, after the first three or fou_iles, of holes and cart-ruts, which, being covered by the snow, were so man_itfalls to the trembling horses, and obliged them to keep a footpace. As i_as next to impossible for men so much agitated as they were by this time, t_it still and move so slowly, all three got out and plodded on behind th_arriage. The distance seemed interminable, and the walk was most laborious.
As each was thinking within himself that the driver must have lost his way, _hurch bell, close at hand, struck the hour of midnight, and the carriag_topped. It had moved softly enough, but when it ceased to crunch the snow, the silence was as startling as if some great noise had been replaced b_erfect stillness.
'This is the place, gentlemen,' said the driver, dismounting from his horse, and knocking at the door of a little inn. 'Halloa! Past twelve o'clock is th_ead of night here.'
The knocking was loud and long, but it failed to rouse the drowsy inmates. Al_ontinued dark and silent as before. They fell back a little, and looked up a_he windows, which were mere black patches in the whitened house front. N_ight appeared. The house might have been deserted, or the sleepers dead, fo_ny air of life it had about it.
They spoke together with a strange inconsistency, in whispers; unwilling t_isturb again the dreary echoes they had just now raised.
'Let us go on,' said the younger brother, 'and leave this good fellow to wak_hem, if he can. I cannot rest until I know that we are not too late. Let u_o on, in the name of Heaven!'
They did so, leaving the postilion to order such accommodation as the hous_fforded, and to renew his knocking. Kit accompanied them with a littl_undle, which he had hung in the carriage when they left home, and had no_orgotten since—the bird in his old cage—just as she had left him. She woul_e glad to see her bird, he knew.
The road wound gently downward. As they proceeded, they lost sight of th_hurch whose clock they had heard, and of the small village clustering roun_t. The knocking, which was now renewed, and which in that stillness the_ould plainly hear, troubled them. They wished the man would forbear, or tha_hey had told him not to break the silence until they returned.
The old church tower, clad in a ghostly garb of pure cold white, again rose u_efore them, and a few moments brought them close beside it. A venerabl_uilding—grey, even in the midst of the hoary landscape. An ancient sun-dia_n the belfry wall was nearly hidden by the snow-drift, and scarcely to b_nown for what it was. Time itself seemed to have grown dull and old, as if n_ay were ever to displace the melancholy night.
A wicket gate was close at hand, but there was more than one path across th_hurchyard to which it led, and, uncertain which to take, they came to a stan_gain.
The village street—if street that could be called which was an irregula_luster of poor cottages of many heights and ages, some with their fronts, some with their backs, and some with gable ends towards the road, with her_nd there a signpost, or a shed encroaching on the path—was close at hand.
There was a faint light in a chamber window not far off, and Kit ran toward_hat house to ask their way.
His first shout was answered by an old man within, who presently appeared a_he casement, wrapping some garment round his throat as a protection from th_old, and demanded who was abroad at that unseasonable hour, wanting him.
''Tis hard weather this,' he grumbled, 'and not a night to call me up in. M_rade is not of that kind that I need be roused from bed. The business o_hich folks want me, will keep cold, especially at this season. What do yo_ant?'
'I would not have roused you, if I had known you were old and ill,' said Kit.
'Old!' repeated the other peevishly. 'How do you know I am old? Not so old a_ou think, friend, perhaps. As to being ill, you will find many young peopl_n worse case than I am. More's the pity that it should be so—not that _hould be strong and hearty for my years, I mean, but that they should be wea_nd tender. I ask your pardon though,' said the old man, 'if I spoke rathe_ough at first. My eyes are not good at night—that's neither age nor illness; they never were—and I didn't see you were a stranger.'
'I am sorry to call you from your bed,' said Kit, 'but those gentlemen you ma_ee by the churchyard gate, are strangers too, who have just arrived from _ong journey, and seek the parsonage-house. You can direct us?'
'I should be able to,' answered the old man, in a trembling voice, 'for, com_ext summer, I have been sexton here, good fifty years. The right hand path, friend, is the road.—There is no ill news for our good gentleman, I hope?'
Kit thanked him, and made him a hasty answer in the negative; he was turnin_ack, when his attention was caught by the voice of a child. Looking up, h_aw a very little creature at a neighbouring window.
'What is that?' cried the child, earnestly. 'Has my dream come true? Pra_peak to me, whoever that is, awake and up.'
'Poor boy!' said the sexton, before Kit could answer, 'how goes it, darling?'
'Has my dream come true?' exclaimed the child again, in a voice so ferven_hat it might have thrilled to the heart of any listener. 'But no, that ca_ever be! How could it be—Oh! how could it!'
'I guess his meaning,' said the sexton. 'To bed again, poor boy!'
'Ay!' cried the child, in a burst of despair. 'I knew it could never be, _elt too sure of that, before I asked! But, all to-night, and last night too, it was the same. I never fall asleep, but that cruel dream comes back.'
'Try to sleep again,' said the old man, soothingly. 'It will go in time.'
'No no, I would rather that it staid—cruel as it is, I would rather that i_taid,' rejoined the child. 'I am not afraid to have it in my sleep, but I a_o sad—so very, very sad.'
The old man blessed him, the child in tears replied Good night, and Kit wa_gain alone.
He hurried back, moved by what he had heard, though more by the child's manne_han by anything he had said, as his meaning was hidden from him. They too_he path indicated by the sexton, and soon arrived before the parsonage wall.
Turning round to look about them when they had got thus far, they saw, amon_ome ruined buildings at a distance, one single solitary light.
It shone from what appeared to be an old oriel window, and being surrounded b_he deep shadows of overhanging walls, sparkled like a star. Bright an_limmering as the stars above their heads, lonely and motionless as they, i_eemed to claim some kindred with the eternal lamps of Heaven, and to burn i_ellowship with them.
'What light is that!' said the younger brother.
'It is surely,' said Mr Garland, 'in the ruin where they live. I see no othe_uin hereabouts.'
'They cannot,' returned the brother hastily, 'be waking at this late hour—'
Kit interposed directly, and begged that, while they rang and waited at th_ate, they would let him make his way to where this light was shining, and tr_o ascertain if any people were about. Obtaining the permission he desired, h_arted off with breathless eagerness, and, still carrying the birdcage in hi_and, made straight towards the spot.
It was not easy to hold that pace among the graves, and at another time h_ight have gone more slowly, or round by the path. Unmindful of all obstacles, however, he pressed forward without slackening his speed, and soon arrive_ithin a few yards of the window. He approached as softly as he could, an_dvancing so near the wall as to brush the whitened ivy with his dress, listened. There was no sound inside. The church itself was not more quiet.
Touching the glass with his cheek, he listened again. No. And yet there wa_uch a silence all around, that he felt sure he could have heard even th_reathing of a sleeper, if there had been one there.
A strange circumstance, a light in such a place at that time of night, with n_ne near it.
A curtain was drawn across the lower portion of the window, and he could no_ee into the room. But there was no shadow thrown upon it from within. To hav_ained a footing on the wall and tried to look in from above, would have bee_ttended with some danger— certainly with some noise, and the chance o_errifying the child, if that really were her habitation. Again and again h_istened; again and again the same wearisome blank.
Leaving the spot with slow and cautious steps, and skirting the ruin for a fe_aces, he came at length to a door. He knocked. No answer. But there was _urious noise inside. It was difficult to determine what it was. It bore _esemblance to the low moaning of one in pain, but it was not that, being fa_oo regular and constant. Now it seemed a kind of song, now a wail—seemed, that is, to his changing fancy, for the sound itself was never changed o_hecked. It was unlike anything he had ever heard; and in its tone there wa_omething fearful, chilling, and unearthly.
The listener's blood ran colder now than ever it had done in frost and snow, but he knocked again. There was no answer, and the sound went on without an_nterruption. He laid his hand softly upon the latch, and put his knee agains_he door. It was secured on the inside, but yielded to the pressure, an_urned upon its hinges. He saw the glimmering of a fire upon the old walls, and entered.