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From that time, there sprung up in the old man's mind, a solicitude
about the child which never slept or left him. There are chords in
the human heart--strange, varying strings--which are only struck
by accident; which will remain mute and senseless to appeals the
most passionate and earnest, and respond at last to the slightest
casual touch. In the most insensible or childish minds, there is
some train of reflection which art can seldom lead, or skill
assist, but which will reveal itself, as great truths have done, by
chance, and when the discoverer has the plainest end in view. From
that time, the old man never, for a moment, forgot the weakness and
devotion of the child; from the time of that slight incident, he
who had seen her toiling by his side through so much difficulty and
suffering, and had scarcely thought of her otherwise than as the
partner of miseries which he felt severely in his own person, and
deplored for his own sake at least as much as hers, awoke to a
sense of what he owed her, and what those miseries had made her.
Never, no, never once, in one unguarded moment from that time to
the end, did any care for himself, any thought of his own comfort,
any selfish consideration or regard distract his thoughts from the
gentle object of his love.
He would follow her up and down, waiting till she should tire and
lean upon his arm--he would sit opposite to her in the
chimney-corner, content to watch, and look, until she raised her
head and smiled upon him as of old--he would discharge by stealth,
those household duties which tasked her powers too heavily--he
would rise, in the cold dark nights, to listen to her breathing in
her sleep, and sometimes crouch for hours by her bedside only to
touch her hand. He who knows all, can only know what hopes, and
fears, and thoughts of deep affection, were in that one disordered
brain, and what a change had fallen on the poor old man.
Sometimes--weeks had crept on, then--the child, exhausted, though
with little fatigue, would pass whole evenings on a couch beside the
fire. At such times, the schoolmaster would bring in books, and
read to her aloud; and seldom an evening passed, but the bachelor
came in, and took his turn of reading. The old man sat and
listened--with little understanding for the words, but with his
eyes fixed upon the child--and if she smiled or brightened with
the story, he would say it was a good one, and conceive a fondness
for the very book. When, in their evening talk, the bachelor told
some tale that pleased her (as his tales were sure to do), the old
man would painfully try to store it in his mind; nay, when the
bachelor left them, he would sometimes slip out after him, and
humbly beg that he would tell him such a part again, that he might
learn to win a smile from Nell.
But these were rare occasions, happily; for the child yearned to be
out of doors, and walking in her solemn garden. Parties, too,
would come to see the church; and those who came, speaking to
others of the child, sent more; so even at that season of the year
they had visitors almost daily. The old man would follow them at
a little distance through the building, listening to the voice he
loved so well; and when the strangers left, and parted from Nell,
he would mingle with them to catch up fragments of their
conversation; or he would stand for the same purpose, with his grey
head uncovered, at the gate as they passed through.
They always praised the child, her sense and beauty, and he was
proud to hear them! But what was that, so often added, which wrung
his heart, and made him sob and weep alone, in some dull corner!
Alas! even careless strangers--they who had no feeling for her,
but the interest of the moment--they who would go away and forget
next week that such a being lived--even they saw it--even they
pitied her--even they bade him good day compassionately, and
whispered as they passed.
The people of the village, too, of whom there was not one but grew
to have a fondness for poor Nell; even among them, there was the
same feeling; a tenderness towards her--a compassionate regard for
her, increasing every day. The very schoolboys, light-hearted and
thoughtless as they were, even they cared for her. The roughest
among them was sorry if he missed her in the usual place upon his
way to school, and would turn out of the path to ask for her at the
latticed window. If she were sitting in the church, they perhaps
might peep in softly at the open door; but they never spoke to her,
unless she rose and went to speak to them. Some feeling was abroad
which raised the child above them all.
So, when Sunday came. They were all poor country people in the
church, for the castle in which the old family had lived, was an
empty ruin, and there were none but humble folks for seven miles
around. There, as elsewhere, they had an interest in Nell. They
would gather round her in the porch, before and after service;
young children would cluster at her skirts; and aged men and women
forsake their gossips, to give her kindly greeting. None of them,
young or old, thought of passing the child without a friendly
word. Many who came from three or four miles distant, brought her
little presents; the humblest and rudest had good wishes to bestow.
She had sought out the young children whom she first saw playing in
the churchyard. One of these--he who had spoken of his brother--
was her little favourite and friend, and often sat by her side in
the church, or climbed with her to the tower-top. It was his
delight to help her, or to fancy that he did so, and they soon
became close companions.
It happened, that, as she was reading in the old spot by herself
one day, this child came running in with his eyes full of tears,
and after holding her from him, and looking at her eagerly for a
moment, clasped his little arms passionately about her neck.
'What now?' said Nell, soothing him. 'What is the matter?'
'She is not one yet!' cried the boy, embracing her still more
closely. 'No, no. Not yet.'
She looked at him wonderingly, and putting his hair back from his
face, and kissing him, asked what he meant.
'You must not be one, dear Nell,' cried the boy. 'We can't see
them. They never come to play with us, or talk to us. Be what you
are. You are better so.'
'I do not understand you,' said the child. 'Tell me what you
'Why, they say , replied the boy, looking up into her face, that
you will be an Angel, before the birds sing again. But you won't
be, will you? Don't leave us Nell, though the sky is bright. Do
not leave us!'
The child dropped her head, and put her hands before her face.
'She cannot bear the thought!' cried the boy, exulting through his
tears. 'You will not go. You know how sorry we should be. Dear
Nell, tell me that you'll stay amongst us. Oh! Pray, pray, tell
me that you will.'
The little creature folded his hands, and knelt down at her feet.
'Only look at me, Nell,' said the boy, 'and tell me that you'll
stop, and then I shall know that they are wrong, and will cry no
more. Won't you say yes, Nell?'
Still the drooping head and hidden face, and the child quite
silent--save for her sobs.
'After a time,' pursued the boy, trying to draw away her hand, the
kind angels will be glad to think that you are not among them, and
that you stayed here to be with us. Willy went away, to join them;
but if he had known how I should miss him in our little bed at
night, he never would have left me, I am sure.'
Yet the child could make him no answer, and sobbed as though her
heart were bursting.
'Why would you go, dear Nell? I know you would not be happy when
you heard that we were crying for your loss. They say that Willy
is in Heaven now, and that it's always summer there, and yet I'm
sure he grieves when I lie down upon his garden bed, and he cannot
turn to kiss me. But if you do go, Nell,' said the boy, caressing
her, and pressing his face to hers, 'be fond of him for my sake.
Tell him how I love him still, and how much I loved you; and when
I think that you two are together, and are happy, I'll try to bear
it, and never give you pain by doing wrong--indeed I never will!'
The child suffered him to move her hands, and put them round his
neck. There was a tearful silence, but it was not long before she
looked upon him with a smile, and promised him, in a very gentle,
quiet voice, that she would stay, and be his friend, as long as
Heaven would let her. He clapped his hands for joy, and thanked
her many times; and being charged to tell no person what had passed
between them, gave her an earnest promise that he never would.
Nor did he, so far as the child could learn; but was her quiet
companion in all her walks and musings, and never again adverted to
the theme, which he felt had given her pain, although he was
unconscious of its cause. Something of distrust lingered about him
still; for he would often come, even in the dark evenings, and call
in a timid voice outside the door to know if she were safe within;
and being answered yes, and bade to enter, would take his station
on a low stool at her feet, and sit there patiently until they came
to seek, and take him home. Sure as the morning came, it found him
lingering near the house to ask if she were well; and, morning,
noon, or night, go where she would, he would forsake his playmates
and his sports to bear her company.
'And a good little friend he is, too,' said the old sexton to her
once. 'When his elder brother died--elder seems a strange word,
for he was only seven years old--I remember this one took it
sorely to heart.'
The child thought of what the schoolmaster had told her, and felt
how its truth was shadowed out even in this infant.
'It has given him something of a quiet way, I think,' said the old
man, 'though for that he is merry enough at times. I'd wager now
that you and he have been listening by the old well.'
'Indeed we have not,' the child replied. 'I have been afraid to go
near it; for I am not often down in that part of the church, and do
not know the ground.'
'Come down with me,' said the old man. 'I have known it from a
They descended the narrow steps which led into the crypt, and
paused among the gloomy arches, in a dim and murky spot.
'This is the place,' said the old man. 'Give me your hand while
you throw back the cover, lest you should stumble and fall in. I
am too old--I mean rheumatic--to stoop, myself.'
'A black and dreadful place!' exclaimed the child.
'Look in,' said the old man, pointing downward with his finger.
The child complied, and gazed down into the pit.
'It looks like a grave itself,' said the old man.
'It does,' replied the child.
'I have often had the fancy,' said the sexton, 'that it might have
been dug at first to make the old place more gloomy, and the old
monks more religious. It's to be closed up, and built over.'
The child still stood, looking thoughtfully into the vault.
'We shall see,' said the sexton, 'on what gay heads other earth
will have closed, when the light is shut out from here. God knows!
They'll close it up, next spring.'
'The birds sing again in spring,' thought the child, as she leaned
at her casement window, and gazed at the declining sun. 'Spring!
a beautiful and happy time!'