The Old Curiosity Shop/Chapter 71
The dull, red glow of a wood fire--for no lamp or candle burnt within the room--showed him a figure, seated on the hearth with its back towards him, bending over the fitful light. The attitude was that of one who sought the heat. It was, and yet was not. The stooping posture and the cowering form were there, but no hands were stretched out to meet the grateful warmth, no shrug or shiver compared its luxury with the piercing cold outside. With limbs huddled together, head bowed down, arms crossed upon the breast, and fingers tightly clenched, it rocked to and fro upon its seat without a moment's pause, accompanying the action with the mournful sound he had heard.
The heavy door had closed behind him on his entrance, with a crash that made him start. The figure neither spoke, nor turned to look, nor gave in any other way the faintest sign of having heard the noise. The form was that of an old man, his white head akin in colour to the mouldering embers upon which he gazed. He, and the failing light and dying fire, the time-worn room, the solitude, the wasted life, and gloom, were all in fellowship. Ashes, and dust, and ruin!
Kit tried to speak, and did pronounce some words, though what they were he scarcely knew. Still the same terrible low cry went on-- still the same rocking in the chair--the same stricken figure was there, unchanged and heedless of his presence.
He had his hand upon the latch, when something in the form-- distinctly seen as one log broke and fell, and, as it fell, blazed up--arrested it. He returned to where he had stood before-- advanced a pace--another--another still. Another, and he saw the face. Yes! Changed as it was, he knew it well.
'Master!' he cried, stooping on one knee and catching at his hand. 'Dear master. Speak to me!'
The old man turned slowly towards him; and muttered in a hollow voice,
'This is another!--How many of these spirits there have been to-night!'
'No spirit, master. No one but your old servant. You know me now, I am sure? Miss Nell--where is she--where is she?'
'They all say that!' cried the old man. 'They all ask the same question. A spirit!'
'Where is she?' demanded Kit. 'Oh tell me but that,--but that, dear master!'
'She is asleep--yonder--in there.'
'Aye! Thank God!' returned the old man. 'I have prayed to Him, many, and many, and many a livelong night, when she has been asleep, He knows. Hark! Did she call?'
'I heard no voice.'
'You did. You hear her now. Do you tell me that you don't hear THAT?'
He started up, and listened again.
'Nor that?' he cried, with a triumphant smile, 'Can any body know that voice so well as I? Hush! Hush!' Motioning to him to be silent, he stole away into another chamber. After a short absence (during which he could be heard to speak in a softened soothing tone) he returned, bearing in his hand a lamp.
'She is still asleep,' he whispered. 'You were right. She did not call--unless she did so in her slumber. She has called to me in her sleep before now, sir; as I have sat by, watching, I have seen her lips move, and have known, though no sound came from them, that she spoke of me. I feared the light might dazzle her eyes and wake her, so I brought it here.'
He spoke rather to himself than to the visitor, but when he had put the lamp upon the table, he took it up, as if impelled by some momentary recollection or curiosity, and held it near his face. Then, as if forgetting his motive in the very action, he turned away and put it down again.
'She is sleeping soundly,' he said; 'but no wonder. Angel hands have strewn the ground deep with snow, that the lightest footstep may be lighter yet; and the very birds are dead, that they may not wake her. She used to feed them, Sir. Though never so cold and hungry, the timid things would fly from us. They never flew from her!'
Again he stopped to listen, and scarcely drawing breath, listened for a long, long time. That fancy past, he opened an old chest, took out some clothes as fondly as if they had been living things, and began to smooth and brush them with his hand.
'Why dost thou lie so idle there, dear Nell,' he murmured, 'when there are bright red berries out of doors waiting for thee to pluck them! Why dost thou lie so idle there, when thy little friends come creeping to the door, crying "where is Nell--sweet Nell?"-- and sob, and weep, because they do not see thee. She was always gentle with children. The wildest would do her bidding--she had a tender way with them, indeed she had!'
Kit had no power to speak. His eyes were filled with tears.
'Her little homely dress,--her favourite!' cried the old man, pressing it to his breast, and patting it with his shrivelled hand. 'She will miss it when she wakes. They have hid it here in sport, but she shall have it--she shall have it. I would not vex my darling, for the wide world's riches. See here--these shoes--how worn they are--she kept them to remind her of our last long journey. You see where the little feet went bare upon the ground. They told me, afterwards, that the stones had cut and bruised them. She never told me that. No, no, God bless her! and, I have remembered since, she walked behind me, sir, that I might not see how lame she was--but yet she had my hand in hers, and seemed to lead me still.'
He pressed them to his lips, and having carefully put them back again, went on communing with himself--looking wistfully from time to time towards the chamber he had lately visited.
'She was not wont to be a lie-abed; but she was well then. We must have patience. When she is well again, she will rise early, as she used to do, and ramble abroad in the healthy morning time. I often tried to track the way she had gone, but her small footstep left no print upon the dewy ground, to guide me. Who is that? Shut the door. Quick!--Have we not enough to do to drive away that marble cold, and keep her warm!'
The door was indeed opened, for the entrance of Mr Garland and his friend, accompanied by two other persons. These were the schoolmaster, and the bachelor. The former held a light in his hand. He had, it seemed, but gone to his own cottage to replenish the exhausted lamp, at the moment when Kit came up and found the old man alone.
He softened again at sight of these two friends, and, laying aside the angry manner--if to anything so feeble and so sad the term can be applied--in which he had spoken when the door opened, resumed his former seat, and subsided, by little and little into the old action, and the old, dull, wandering sound.
Of the strangers, he took no heed whatever. He had seen them, but appeared quite incapable of interest or curiosity. The younger brother stood apart. The bachelor drew a chair towards the old man, and sat down close beside him. After a long silence, he ventured to speak.
'Another night, and not in bed!' he said softly; 'I hoped you would be more mindful of your promise to me. Why do you not take some rest?'
'Sleep has left me,' returned the old man. 'It is all with her!'
'It would pain her very much to know that you were watching thus,' said the bachelor. 'You would not give her pain?'
'I am not so sure of that, if it would only rouse her. She has slept so very long. And yet I am rash to say so. It is a good and happy sleep--eh?'
'Indeed it is,' returned the bachelor. 'Indeed, indeed, it is!'
'That's well!--and the waking--' faltered the old man.
'Happy too. Happier than tongue can tell, or heart of man conceive.'
They watched him as he rose and stole on tiptoe to the other chamber where the lamp had been replaced. They listened as he spoke again within its silent walls. They looked into the faces of each other, and no man's cheek was free from tears. He came back, whispering that she was still asleep, but that he thought she had moved. It was her hand, he said--a little--a very, very little-- but he was pretty sure she had moved it--perhaps in seeking his. He had known her do that, before now, though in the deepest sleep the while. And when he had said this, he dropped into his chair again, and clasping his hands above his head, uttered a cry never to be forgotten.
The poor schoolmaster motioned to the bachelor that he would come on the other side, and speak to him. They gently unlocked his fingers, which he had twisted in his grey hair, and pressed them in their own.
'He will hear me,' said the schoolmaster, 'I am sure. He will hear either me or you if we beseech him. She would, at all times.'
'I will hear any voice she liked to hear,' cried the old man. 'I love all she loved!'
'I know you do,' returned the schoolmaster. 'I am certain of it. Think of her; think of all the sorrows and afflictions you have shared together; of all the trials, and all the peaceful pleasures, you have jointly known.'
'I do. I do. I think of nothing else.'
'I would have you think of nothing else to-night--of nothing but those things which will soften your heart, dear friend, and open it to old affections and old times. It is so that she would speak to you herself, and in her name it is that I speak now.'
'You do well to speak softly,' said the old man. 'We will not wake her. I should be glad to see her eyes again, and to see her smile. There is a smile upon her young face now, but it is fixed and changeless. I would have it come and go. That shall be in Heaven's good time. We will not wake her.'
'Let us not talk of her in her sleep, but as she used to be when you were Journeying together, far away--as she was at home, in the old house from which you fled together--as she was, in the old cheerful time,' said the schoolmaster.
'She was always cheerful--very cheerful,' cried the old man, looking steadfastly at him. 'There was ever something mild and quiet about her, I remember, from the first; but she was of a happy nature.'
'We have heard you say,' pursued the schoolmaster, 'that in this and in all goodness, she was like her mother. You can think of, and remember her?'
He maintained his steadfast look, but gave no answer.
'Or even one before her,' said the bachelor. 'it is many years ago, and affliction makes the time longer, but you have not forgotten her whose death contributed to make this child so dear to you, even before you knew her worth or could read her heart? Say, that you could carry back your thoughts to very distant days--to the time of your early life--when, unlike this fair flower, you did not pass your youth alone. Say, that you could remember, long ago, another child who loved you dearly, you being but a child yourself. Say, that you had a brother, long forgotten, long unseen, long separated from you, who now, at last, in your utmost need came back to comfort and console you--'
'To be to you what you were once to him,' cried the younger, falling on his knee before him; 'to repay your old affection, brother dear, by constant care, solicitude, and love; to be, at your right hand, what he has never ceased to be when oceans rolled between us; to call to witness his unchanging truth and mindfulness of bygone days, whole years of desolation. Give me but one word of recognition, brother--and never--no never, in the brightest moment of our youngest days, when, poor silly boys, we thought to pass our lives together--have we been half as dear and precious to each other as we shall be from this time hence!'
The old man looked from face to face, and his lips moved; but no sound came from them in reply.
'If we were knit together then,' pursued the younger brother, 'what will be the bond between us now! Our love and fellowship began in childhood, when life was all before us, and will be resumed when we have proved it, and are but children at the last. As many restless spirits, who have hunted fortune, fame, or pleasure through the world, retire in their decline to where they first drew breath, vainly seeking to be children once again before they die, so we, less fortunate than they in early life, but happier in its closing scenes, will set up our rest again among our boyish haunts, and going home with no hope realised, that had its growth in manhood-- carrying back nothing that we brought away, but our old yearnings to each other--saving no fragment from the wreck of life, but that which first endeared it--may be, indeed, but children as at first. And even,' he added in an altered voice, 'even if what I dread to name has come to pass--even if that be so, or is to be (which Heaven forbid and spare us!)--still, dear brother, we are not apart, and have that comfort in our great affliction.'
By little and little, the old man had drawn back towards the inner chamber, while these words were spoken. He pointed there, as he replied, with trembling lips.
'You plot among you to wean my heart from her. You never will do that--never while I have life. I have no relative or friend but her--I never had--I never will have. She is all in all to me. It is too late to part us now.'
Waving them off with his hand, and calling softly to her as he went, he stole into the room. They who were left behind, drew close together, and after a few whispered words--not unbroken by emotion, or easily uttered--followed him. They moved so gently, that their footsteps made no noise; but there were sobs from among the group, and sounds of grief and mourning.
For she was dead. There, upon her little bed, she lay at rest. The solemn stillness was no marvel now.
She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death.
Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. 'When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.' Those were her words.
She was dead. Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead. Her little bird--a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed--was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child mistress was mute and motionless for ever.
Where were the traces of her early cares, her sufferings, and fatigues? All gone. Sorrow was dead indeed in her, but peace and perfect happiness were born; imaged in her tranquil beauty and profound repose.
And still her former self lay there, unaltered in this change. Yes. The old fireside had smiled upon that same sweet face; it had passed, like a dream, through haunts of misery and care; at the door of the poor schoolmaster on the summer evening, before the furnace fire upon the cold wet night, at the still bedside of the dying boy, there had been the same mild lovely look. So shall we know the angels in their majesty, after death.
The old man held one languid arm in his, and had the small hand tight folded to his breast, for warmth. It was the hand she had stretched out to him with her last smile--the hand that had led him on, through all their wanderings. Ever and anon he pressed it to his lips; then hugged it to his breast again, murmuring that it was warmer now; and, as he said it, he looked, in agony, to those who stood around, as if imploring them to help her.
She was dead, and past all help, or need of it. The ancient rooms she had seemed to fill with life, even while her own was waning fast--the garden she had tended--the eyes she had gladdened--the noiseless haunts of many a thoughtful hour--the paths she had trodden as it were but yesterday--could know her never more.
'It is not,' said the schoolmaster, as he bent down to kiss her on the cheek, and gave his tears free vent, 'it is not on earth that Heaven's justice ends. Think what earth is, compared with the World to which her young spirit has winged its early flight; and say, if one deliberate wish expressed in solemn terms above this bed could call her back to life, which of us would utter it!'