A short story by Charles Dickens
Title: Little Nell
Author: Charles Dickens [More Titles by Dickens]
THE house where little Nell and her grandfather lived was one of those places where old and curious things were kept, one of those old houses which seem to crouch in odd corners of the town, and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armor, here and there; curious carvings brought from monkish cloisters; rusty weapons of various kinds; distorted figures in china, and wood, and iron, and ivory; tapestry, and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams; and in the old, dark, dismal rooms there lived alone together the man and a child--his grandchild, Little Nell. Solitary and dull as was her life, the innocent and cheerful spirit of the child found happiness in all things, and through the dim rooms of the old curiosity shop Little Nell went singing, moving with gay and lightsome step.
But gradually over the old man, whom she so tenderly loved, there stole a sad change. He became thoughtful, sad and wretched. He had no sleep or rest but that which he took by day in his easy-chair; for every night, and all night long, he was away from home. To the child it seemed that her grandfather's love for her increased, even with the hidden grief by which she saw him struck down. And to see him sorrowful, and not to know the cause of his sorrow; to see him growing pale and weak under his trouble of mind, so weighed upon her gentle spirit that at times she felt as though her heart must break.
At last the time came when the old man's feeble frame could bear up no longer against his hidden care. A raging fever seized him, and, as he lay delirious or insensible through many weeks, Nell learned that the house which sheltered them was theirs no longer; that in the future they would be very poor; that they would scarcely have bread to eat. At length the old man began to mend, but his mind was weakened.
He would sit for hours together, with Nell's small hand in his, playing with the fingers, and sometimes stopping to smooth her hair or kiss her brow; and when he saw that tears were glistening in her eyes he would look amazed. As the time drew near when they must leave the house, he made no reference to the necessity of finding other shelter. An indistinct idea he had that the child was desolate and in need of help; though he seemed unable to understand their real position more distinctly. But a change came upon him one evening, as he and Nell sat silently together.
"Let us speak softly, Nell," he said. "Hush! for if they knew our purpose they would say that I was mad, and take thee from me. We will not stop here another day. We will travel afoot through the fields and woods, and trust ourselves to God in the places where He dwells. To-morrow morning, dear, we'll turn our faces from this scene of sorrow, and be as free and happy as the birds."
The child's heart beat high with hope and confidence. She had no thought of hunger, or cold, or thirst, or suffering. To her it seemed that they might beg their way from door to door in happiness, so that they were together.
When the day began to glimmer they stole out of the house, and, passing into the street, stood still.
"Which way?" asked the child.
The old man looked doubtfully and helplessly at her, and shook his head. It was plain that she was thenceforth his guide and leader. The child felt it, but had no doubts or misgivings, and, putting her hand in his, led him gently away. Forth from the city, while it yet was asleep went the two poor wanderers, going, they knew not whither.
They passed through the long, deserted streets, in the glad light of early morning, until these streets dwindled away, and the open country was about them. They walked all day, and slept that night at a small cottage where beds were let to travelers. The sun was setting on the second day of their journey, and they were jaded and worn out with walking, when, following a path which led through a churchyard to the town where they were to spend the night, they fell in with two traveling showmen, the exhibitors or keepers of a Punch and Judy show. These two men raised their eyes when the old man and his young companion were close upon them. One of them, the real exhibitor, no doubt, was a little, merry-faced man with a twinkling eye and a red nose, who seemed to be something like old Punch himself. The other--that was he who took the money--had rather a careful and cautious look, which perhaps came from his business also.
The merry man was the first to greet the strangers with a nod; and following the old man's eyes, he observed that perhaps that was the first time he had ever seen a Punch off the stage.
"Why do you come here to do this?" said the old man sitting down beside them, and looking at the figures with extreme delight.
"Why, you see," rejoined the little man, "we're putting up for to-night at the public house yonder, and it wouldn't do to let 'em see the present company undergoing repair."
"No!" cried the old man, making signs to Nell to listen, "why not, eh? why not?"
"Because it would destroy all the reality of the show and take away all the interest, wouldn't it?" replied the little man. "Would you care a ha'penny for the Lord Chancellor if you know'd him in private and without his wig?--certainly not."[A]
"Good!" said the old man, venturing to touch one of the puppets, and drawing away his hand with a shrill laugh. "Are you going to show 'em to-night? are you?"
"That is the purpose, governor," replied the other, "and unless I'm much mistaken, Tommy Codlin is a-calculating at this minute what we've lost through your coming upon us. Cheer up, Tommy, it can't be much."
The little man accompanied these latter words with a wink, expressive of the estimate he had formed of the travelers' pocketbook.
To this Mr. Codlin, who had a surly, grumbling manner, replied, as he twitched Punch off the tombstone and flung him into the box:
"I don't care if we haven't lost a farden, but you're too free. If you stood in front of the curtain and see the public's faces as I do, you'd know human natur' better."
Turning over the figures in the box like one who knew and despised them, Mr. Codlin drew one forth and held it up for the inspection of his friend:
"Look here; here's all this Judy's clothes falling to pieces again. You haven't got a needle and thread, I suppose?"
The little man shook his head and scratched it sadly, as he contemplated this condition of a principal performer in his show. Seeing that they were at a loss, the child said, timidly:
"I have a needle, sir, in my basket, and thread too. Will you let me try to mend it for you? I think I could do it neater than you could."
Even Mr. Codlin had nothing to urge against a proposal so seasonable. Nell, kneeling down beside the box, was soon busily engaged in her task, and finished it in a wonderful way.
While she was thus at work, the merry little man looked at her with an interest which did not appear to be any less when he glanced at her helpless companion. When she had finished her work he thanked her, and asked to what place they were traveling.
"N--no farther to-night, I think," said the child, looking toward her grandfather.
"If you're wanting a place to stop at," the man remarked. "I should advise you to take up at the same house with us. That's it. The long low, white house there. It's very cheap."
They went to the little inn, and when they had been refreshed, the whole house hurried away into an empty stable where the show stood, and where, by the light of a few flaring candles stuck round a hoop which hung by a line from the ceiling, it was to be forthwith shown.
And now Mr. Thomas Codlin, after blowing away at the Pan's pipes, took his station on one side of the curtain which concealed the mover of the figures, and, putting his hands in his pockets, prepared to reply to all questions and remarks of Punch, and to make a pretence of being his most intimate private friend, of believing in him to the fullest and most unlimited extent, of knowing that Mr. Punch enjoyed day and night a merry and glorious life in that temple, and that he was at all times and under every circumstance the same wise and joyful person that all present then beheld him.
The whole performance was applauded until the old stable rang, and gifts were showered in with a liberality which testified yet more strongly to the general delight. Among the laughter none was more loud and frequent than the old man's. Nell's was unheard, for she, poor child, with her head drooping on his shoulder, had fallen asleep, and slept too soundly to be roused by any of his efforts to awaken her to a part in his glee.
The supper was very good, but she was too tired to eat, and yet would not leave the old man until she had kissed him in his bed. He, happily insensible to every care and anxiety, sat listening with a vacant smile and admiring face to all that his new friends said; and it was not until they retired yawning to their room that he followed the child up-stairs.
She had a little money, but it was very little; and when that was gone they must begin to beg. There was one piece of gold among it, and a need might come when its worth to them would be increased a hundred times. It would be best to hide this coin, and never show it unless their case was entirely desperate, and nothing else was left them.
Her resolution taken, she sewed the piece of gold into her dress, and going to bed with a lighter heart sunk into a deep slumber.
"And where are you going to-day?" said the little man the following morning, addressing himself to Nell.
"Indeed I hardly know--we have not made up our minds yet," replied the child.
"We're going on to the races," said the little man. "If that's your way and you like to have us for company, let us travel together. If you prefer going alone, only say the word and you'll find that we sha'n't trouble you."
"We'll go with you," said the old man. "Nell--with them, with them."
The child thought for a moment, and knowing that she must shortly beg, and could scarcely hope to do so at a better place than where crowds of rich ladies and gentlemen were met together for enjoyment, determined to go with these men so far. She therefore thanked the little man for his offer, and said, glancing timidly toward his friend, that they would if there was no objection to their staying with them as far as the race-town.
And with these men they traveled forward on the following day.
They made two long days' journey with their new companions, passing through villages and towns, and meeting upon one occasion with two young people walking upon stilts, who were also going to the races.
And now they had come to the time when they must beg their bread. Soon after sunrise the second morning, she stole out, and, rambling into some fields at a short distance, plucked a few wild roses and such humble flowers, purposing to make them into little nosegays and offer them to the ladies in the carriages when the company arrived. Her thoughts were not idle while she was thus busy; when she returned and was seated beside the old man, tying her flowers together, while the two men lay dozing in the corner, she plucked him by the sleeve, and, slightly glancing toward them, said in a low voice:
"Grandfather, don't look at those I talk of, and don't seem as if I spoke of anything but what I am about. What was that you told me before we left the old house? That if they knew what we were going to do, they would say that you were mad, and part us?"
The old man turned to her with a look of wild terror; but she checked him by a look, and bidding him hold some flowers while she tied them up, and so bringing her lips closer to his ear, said:
"I know that was what you told me. You needn't speak, dear. I recollect it very well. It was not likely that I should forget it. Grandfather, I have heard these men say they think that we have secretly left our friends, and mean to carry us before some gentleman and have us taken care of and sent back. If you let your hand tremble so, we can never get away from them, but if you're only quiet now, we shall do so easily."
"How?" muttered the old man. "Dear Nell, how? They will shut me up in a stone-room, dark and cold, and chain me up to the wall, Nell--flog me with whips, and never let me see thee more!"
"You're trembling again," said the child. "Keep close to me all day. Never mind them, don't look at them, but me. I shall find a time when we can steal away. When I do, mind you come with me, and do not stop or speak a word. Hush! That's all."
"Halloo! what are you up to, my dear?" said Mr. Codlin, raising his head, and yawning.
"Making some nosegays," the child replied; "I am going to try to sell some, these three days of the races. Will you have one--as a present, I mean?"
Mr. Codlin would have risen to receive it, but the child hurried toward him and placed it in his hand, and he stuck it in his button-hole.
As the morning wore on, the tents at the race-course assumed a gayer and more brilliant appearance, and long lines of carriages came rolling softly on the turf. Black-eyed gipsy girls, their heads covered with showy handkerchiefs, came out to tell fortunes, and pale, slender women with wasted faces followed the footsteps of conjurers, and counted the sixpences with anxious eyes long before they were gained. As many of the children as could be kept within bounds were stowed away, with all the other signs of dirt and poverty, among the donkeys, carts, and horses; and as many as could not be thus disposed of ran in and out in all directions, crept between people's legs and carriage wheels, and came forth unharmed from under horses' hoofs. The dancing-dogs, the stilts, the little lady and the tall man, and all the other attractions, with organs out of number and bands innumerable, came out from the holes and corners in which they had passed the night, and flourished boldly in the sun.
Along the uncleared course, Short led his party, sounding the brazen trumpet and speaking in the voice of Punch; and at his heels went Thomas Codlin, bearing the show as usual, and keeping his eye on Nell and her grandfather, as they rather lingered in the rear. The child bore upon her arm the little basket with her flowers, and sometimes stopped, with timid and modest looks, to offer them at some gay carriage; but alas! there were many bolder beggars there, gipsies who promised husbands, and others skillful in their trade; and although some ladies smiled gently as they shook their heads, and others cried to the gentlemen beside them, "See what a pretty face!" they let the pretty face pass on, and never thought that it looked tired or hungry.
There was but one lady who seemed to understand the child, and she was one who sat alone in a handsome carriage, while two young men in dashing clothes, who had just stepped out from it, talked and laughed loudly at a little distance, appearing to forget her, quite. There were many ladies all around, but they turned their backs, or looked another way, or at the two young men (not unfavorably at them), and left her to herself. The lady motioned away a gipsy woman, eager to tell her fortune, saying that it was told already and had been for some years, but called the child toward her, and, taking her flowers, put money into her trembling hand, and bade her go home and keep at home.
Many a time they went up and down those long, long lines, seeing everything but the horses and the race; when the bell rung to clear the course, going back to rest among the carts and donkeys, and not coming out again until the heat was over. Many a time, too, was Punch displayed in the full glory of his humor; but all this while the eye of Thomas Codlin was upon them, and to escape without notice was almost impossible.
At length, late in the day, Mr. Codlin pitched the show in a spot right in the middle of the crowd, and the Punch and Judy were surrounded by people who were watching the performance.
Short was moving the images, and knocking them in the fury of the combat against the sides of the show, the people were looking on with laughing faces, and Mr. Codlin's face showed a grim smile as his roving eye detected the hands of thieves in the crowd going into waistcoat pockets. If Nell and her grandfather were ever to get away unseen, that was the very moment. They seized it, and fled.
They made a path through booths and carriages and throngs of people, and never once stopped to look behind. The bell was ringing, and the course was cleared by the time they reached the ropes, but they dashed across it, paying no attention to the shouts and screeching that assailed them for breaking in it, and, creeping under the brow of the hill at a quick pace, made for the open fields. At last they were free from Codlin and Short.
That night they reached a little village in a woody hollow. The village schoolmaster, a good and gentle man, pitying their weariness, and attracted by the child's sweetness and modesty, gave them a lodging for the night; nor would he let them leave him until two days more had passed.
They journeyed on, when the time came that they must wander forth again, by pleasant country lanes; and as they passed, watching the birds that perched and twittered in the branches overhead, or listening to the songs that broke the happy silence, their hearts were peaceful and free from care. But by-and-by they came to a long winding road which lengthened out far into the distance, and though they still kept on, it was at a much slower pace, for they were now very weary.
The afternoon had worn away into a beautiful evening, when they arrived at a point where the road made a sharp turn and struck across a common. On the border of this common, and close to the hedge which divided it from the cultivated fields, a caravan was drawn up to rest; upon which they came so suddenly that they could not have avoided it if they would. Do you know what a "caravan" is? It is a sort of gipsy house on wheels in which people live, while the house moves from place to place.
It was not a shabby, dingy, dusty cart, but a smart little house with white dimity curtains hung over the windows, and window-shutters of green picked out with panels of a staring red, in which happily-contrasted colors the whole house shone brilliant. Neither was it a poor caravan drawn by a single donkey or feeble old horse, for a pair of horses in pretty good condition were released from the shafts and grazing on the frouzy grass. Neither was it a gipsy caravan, for at the open door (graced with a bright brass knocker) sat a Christian lady, stout and comfortable to look upon, who wore a large bonnet trembling with bows. And that it was not a caravan of poor people was clear from what this lady was doing; for she was taking her tea. The tea-things, including a bottle of rather suspicious looks and a cold knuckle of ham, were set forth upon a drum, covered with a white napkin; and there, as if at the most convenient round-table in all the world, sat this roving lady, taking her tea and enjoying the prospect.
It happened at that moment that the lady of the caravan had her cup (which, that everything about her might be of a stout and comfortable kind, was a breakfast cup) to her lips, and that having her eyes lifted to the sky in her enjoyment of the full flavor of her tea, it happened that, being thus agreeably engaged, she did not see the travelers when they first came up. It was not until she was in the act of setting down the cup, and drawing a long breath after the exertion of swallowing its contents, that the lady of the caravan beheld an old man and a young child walking slowly by, and glancing at her proceedings with eyes of modest, but hungry admiration.
"Hey!" cried the lady of the caravan, scooping the crumbs out of her lap and swallowing the same before wiping her lips. "Yes, to be sure------Who won the Helter-Skelter Plate, child?"
"Won what, ma'am?" asked Nell.
"The Helter-Skelter Plate at the races, child--the plate that was run for on the second day."
"On the second day, ma'am?"
"Second day! Yes, second day," repeated the lady, with an air of impatience. "Can't you say who won the Helter-Skelter Plate when you're asked the question civilly?"
"I don't know, ma'am."
"Don't know!" repeated the lady of the caravan; "why, you were there. I saw you with my own eyes."
Nell was not a little alarmed to hear this, supposing that the lady might be intimately acquainted with the firm of Short and Codlin; but what followed tended to put her at her ease.
"And very sorry I was," said the lady of the caravan, "to see you in company with a Punch--a low, common, vulgar wretch, that people should scorn to look at."
"I was not there by choice," returned the child; "we didn't know our way, and the two men were very kind to us, and let us travel with them. Do you--do you know them, ma'am?"
"Know 'em, child?" cried the lady of the caravan, in a sort of shriek. "Know them! But you're young and ignorant, and that's your excuse for asking sich a question. Do I look as if I know'd 'em? does the caravan look as if it know'd 'em?"
"No, ma'am, no," said the child, fearing she had committed some grievous fault. "I beg your pardon."
The lady of the caravan was in the act of gathering her tea things together preparing to clear the table, but noting the child's anxious manner, she hesitated and stopped. The child courtesied, and, giving her hand to the old man, had already got some fifty yards or so away, when the lady of the caravan called to her to return.
"Come nearer, nearer still," said she, beckoning to her to ascend the steps. "Are you hungry, child?"
"Not very, but we are tired, and it's--it is a long way------"
"Well, hungry or not, you had better have some tea," rejoined her new acquaintance. "I suppose you are agreeable to that old gentleman?"
The grandfather humbly pulled off his hat and thanked her. The lady of the caravan then bade him come up the steps likewise, but the drum proving an inconvenient table for two, they went down again, and sat upon the grass, where she handed down to them the tea-tray, the bread and butter, and the knuckle of ham.
"Set 'em out near the hind wheels child, that's the best place," said their friend, superintending the arrangement from above. "Now hand up the tea-pot for a little more hot water and a pinch of fresh tea, and then both of you eat and drink as much as you can, and don't spare anything; that's all I ask of you."
The mistress of the caravan, saying the girl and her grandfather could not be very heavy, invited them to go along with them for a while, for which Nell thanked her with all her heart.
When they had traveled slowly forward for some short distance, Nell ventured to steal a look round the caravan and observe it more closely. One-half of it--that part in which the comfortable proprietress was then seated--was carpeted, and so divided the farther end as to form a sleeping-place, made after the fashion of a berth on board ship, which was shaded, like the little windows, with fair white curtains, and looked comfortable enough, though by what kind of gymnastic exercise the lady of the caravan ever contrived to get into it was a mystery. The other half served for a kitchen, and was fitted up with a stove whose small chimney passed through the roof.
The mistress sat looking at the child for a long time in silence, and then, getting up, brought out from a corner a large roll of canvas about a yard in width, which she laid upon the floor and spread open with her foot until it nearly reached from one end of the caravan to the other.
"There, child," she said, "read that."
Nell walked down it, and read aloud, in enormous black letters, the inscription, "JARLEY'S WAX-WORK."
"Read it again," said the lady, complacently.
"Jarley's Wax-work," repeated Nell.
"That's me," said the lady. "I am Mrs. Jarley."
Giving the child an encouraging look, the lady of the caravan unfolded another scroll, whereon was the inscription, "One hundred figures the full size of life;" and then another scroll, on which was written, "The only stupendous collection of real wax-work in the world;" and then several smaller scrolls, with such inscriptions as "Now exhibiting within"--"The genuine and only Jarley"--"Jarley's unrivaled collection"--"Jarley is the delight of the Nobility and Gentry"--"The Royal Family are the patrons of Jarley." When she had exhibited these large painted signs to the astonished child, she brought forth specimens of the lesser notices in the shape of hand-bills, some of which were printed in the form of verses on popular times, as "Believe me if all Jarley's wax-work so rare"--"I saw thy show in youthful prime"--"Over the water to Jarley;" while, to satisfy all tastes, others were composed with a view to the lighter and merrier spirits, as a verse on the favorite air of "If I had a donkey," beginning
"I never saw any wax-work, ma'am," said Nell. "Is it funnier than Punch?"
"Funnier!" said Mrs. Jarley in a shrill voice. "It is not funny at all."
"Oh!" said Nell, with all possible humility.
"It isn't funny at all," repeated Mrs. Jarley. "It's calm and--what's that word again--critical?--no--classical, that's it--it's calm and classical. No low beatings and knockings about, no jokings and squeakings like your precious Punches, but always the same, with a constantly unchanging air of coldness and dignity; and so like life that, if wax-work only spoke and walked about you'd hardly know the difference. I won't go so far as to say that, as it is, I've seen wax-work quite like life, but I've certainly seen some life that was exactly like wax-work."
This conference at length concluded, she beckoned Nell to sit down.
"And the old gentleman, too," said Mrs. Jarley; "for I want to have a word with him. Do you want a good place for your granddaughter, master? If you do, I can put her in the way of getting one. What do you say?"
"I can't leave her," answered the old man. "We can't separate. What would become of me without her?"
"If you're really ready to employ yourself," said Mrs. Jarley, "there would be plenty for you to do in the way of helping to dust the figures, and take the checks, and so forth. What I want your granddaughter for is to point 'em out to the company; they would be soon learned and she has a way with her that people wouldn't think unpleasant, though she does come after me; for I've been always accustomed to go round with visitors myself, which I should keep on doing now, only that my spirits make a little rest absolutely necessary. It's not a common offer, bear in mind," said the lady, rising into the tone and manner in which she was accustomed to address her audiences; "it's Jarley's wax-work, remember. The duty's very light and genteel, the company particularly select, the exhibition takes place in assembly-rooms, town-halls, large rooms at inns, or auction galleries. There is none of your open-air wondering at Jarley's, recollect; there is no tarpaulin and sawdust at Jarley's, remember. Every promise made in the hand-bills is kept to the utmost, and the whole forms an effect of splendor hitherto unknown in this kingdom. Remember that the price of admission is only sixpence, and that this is an opportunity which may never occur again!"
"We are very much obliged to you, ma'am," said Nell, "and thankfully accept your offer."
"And you'll never be sorry for it," returned Mrs. Jarley. "I'm pretty sure of that. So as that's all settled, let us have a bit of supper."
Rumbling along with most unwonted noise, the caravan stopped at last at the place of exhibition, where Nell came down from the wagon among an admiring group of children, who evidently supposed her to be an important part of the curiosities, and were almost ready to believe that her grandfather was a cunning device in wax. The chests were taken out of the van for the figures with all haste, and taken in to be unlocked by Mrs. Jarley, who, attended by George and the driver, arranged their contents (consisting of red festoons and other ornamental work) to make the best show in the decoration of the room.
When the festoons were all put up as tastily as they might be, the wonderful collection was uncovered; and there were shown, on a raised platform some two feet from the floor, running round the room and parted from the rude public by a crimson rope, breast high, a large number of sprightly waxen images of famous people, singly and in groups, clad in glittering dresses of various climes and times, and standing more or less unsteadily upon their legs, with their eyes very wide open, and their nostrils very much inflated, and the muscles of their legs, and arms very strongly developed, and all their faces expressing great surprise. All the gentlemen were very narrow in the breast, and very blue about the beards; and all the ladies were wonderful figures; and all the ladies and all the gentlemen were looking intensely nowhere, and staring with tremendous earnestness at nothing.
When Nell had shown her first wonder at this glorious sight, Mrs. Jarley ordered the room to be cleared of all but herself and the child, and, sitting herself down in an arm-chair in the center, presented Nell with a willow wand, long used by herself for pointing out the characters, and was at great pains to instruct her in her duty.
"That," said Mrs. Jarley, in her exhibition tone, as Nell touched a figure at the beginning of the platform, "is an unfortunate maid of honor in the time of Queen Elizabeth, who died from pricking her finger in consequence of working upon a Sunday. Observe the blood which is trickling from her finger; also the gold-eyed needle of the period, with which she is at work."
All this Nell repeated twice or thrice--pointing to the finger and the needle at the right times; and then passed on to the next.
"That, ladies and gentlemen," said Mrs. Jarley, "is Jasper Packlemerton, of terrible memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all, by tickling the soles of their feet when they were sleeping in the consciousness of innocence and virtue. On being brought to the scaffold and asked if he was sorry for what he had done, he replied yes, he was sorry for having let 'em off so easy, and hoped all Christian husbands would pardon him the offense. Let this be a warning to all young ladies to be particular in the character of the gentlemen of their choice. Observe that his fingers are curled as if in the act of tickling, and that his face is represented with a wink, as he appeared when committing his barbarous murders."
When Nell knew all about Mr. Packlemerton, and could say it without faltering, Mrs. Jarley passed on to the fat man, and then to the thin man, the tall man, the short man, the old lady who died of dancing at a hundred and thirty-two, the wild boy of the woods, the woman who poisoned fourteen families with pickled walnuts, and other historical characters and interesting but misguided individuals. And so well did Nell profit by her instructions, and so apt was she to remember them, that by the time they had been shut up together for a couple of hours, she was in full possession of the history of the whole establishment, and perfectly able to tell the stories of the wax-work to visitors.
For some time her life and the life of the poor vacant old man passed quietly and happily. They traveled from place to place with Mrs. Jarley; Nell spoke her piece, with the wand in her hand, before the waxen images; and her grandfather in a dull way dusted the images when he was told to do so.
But heavier sorrow was yet to come. One night, a holiday night for them, Neil and her grandfather went out to walk. A terrible thunderstorm coming on, they were forced to take refuge in a small public house; and here they saw some shabbily dressed and wicked looking men were playing cards. The old man watched them with increasing interest and excitement, until his whole appearance underwent a complete change. His face was flushed and eager, his teeth set. With a hand that trembled violently he seized Nell's little purse, and in spite of her pleadings joined in the game, gambling with such a savage thirst for gain that the distressed and frightened child could almost better have borne to see him dead. It was long after midnight when the play came to an end; and they were forced to remain where they were until the morning. And in the night the child was wakened from her troubled sleep to find a figure in the room--a figure busying its hands about her garments, while its face was turned to her, listening and looking lest she should awake. It was her grandfather himself, his white face pinched and sharpened by the greediness which made his eyes unnaturally bright, counting the money of which his hands were robbing her.
Evening after evening, after that night, the old man would steal away, not to return until the night was far spent, demanding, wildly, money. And at last there came an hour when the child overheard him, tempted beyond his feeble powers of resistance, undertake to find more money to feed the desperate passion which had laid its hold upon his weakness by robbing the kind Mrs. Jarley, who had done so much for them. The poor old man had become so weak in his mind, that he did not understand how wicked was his act.
That night the child took her grandfather by the hand and led him forth. Through the strait streets and narrow outskirts of the town their trembling feet passed quickly; the child sustained by one idea--that they were flying from wickedness and disgrace, and that she could save her grandfather only by her firmness unaided by one word of advice or any helping hand; the old man following her as though she had been an angel messenger sent to lead him where she would.
The hardest part of all their wanderings was now before them. They slept in the open air that night, and on the following morning some men offered to take them a long distance on their barge on the river. These men, though they were not unkindly, were very rugged, noisy fellows, and they drank and quarreled fearfully among themselves, to Nell's inexpressible terror. It rained, too, heavily, and she was wet and cold. At last they reached the great city whither the barge was bound, and here they wandered up and down, being now penniless, and watched the faces of those who passed, to find among them a ray of encouragement or hope. Ill in body, and sick to death at heart, the child needed her utmost courage and will even to creep along.
They lay down that night, and the next night too, with nothing between them and the sky; a penny loaf was all they had had that day, and when the third morning came, it found the child much weaker, yet she made no complaint. The great city with its many factories hemmed them in on every side, and seemed to shut out hope.
Faint and spiritless as they were, its streets were terrible to them. After humbly asking for relief at some few doors, and being driven away, they agreed to make their way out of it as speedily as they could, and try if the people living in some lone house beyond would have more pity on their worn out state.
They were dragging themselves along through the last street, and the child felt that the time was close at hand when her enfeebled powers would bear no more. There appeared before them, at this moment, going in the same direction as themselves, a traveler on foot, who, with a bundle of clothing strapped to his back, leaned upon a stout stick as he walked, and read from a book which he held in his other hand.
It was not an easy matter to come up with him and ask his aid, for he walked fast, and was a little distance in advance. At length he stopped, to look more attentively at some passage in his book. Encouraged by a ray of hope, the child shot on before her grandfather, and, going close to the stranger without rousing him by the sound of her footsteps, began, in a few faint words, to beg his help.
He turned his head. The child clapped her hands together, uttered a wild shriek, and fell senseless at his feet.
It was the poor schoolmaster. No other than the poor schoolmaster. Scarcely less moved and surprised by the sight of the child than she had been on recognizing him, he stood, for a moment, silent, without even the presence of mind to raise her from the ground.
But, quickly recovering himself, he threw down his stick and book, and, dropping on one knee beside her, tried simple means as came to his mind, to restore her to herself; while her grandfather, standing idly by, wrung his hands, and begged her, with many words of love, to speak to him, were it only a whisper.
"She appears to be quite worn out," said the schoolmaster, glancing upward into his face. "You have used up all her strength, friend."
"She is dying of want," answered the old man. "I never thought how weak and ill she was till now."
Casting a look upon him, half-angry and half-pitiful, the schoolmaster took the child in his arms, and, bidding the old man gather up her little basket and follow him directly, bore her away at his utmost speed.
There was a small inn within sight, to which, it would seem, he had been walking when so unexpectedly overtaken. Toward this place he hurried with his unconscious burden, and rushing into the kitchen, and calling upon the company there assembled to make way for God's sake, laid it down on a chair before the fire.
The company, who rose in confusion on the schoolmaster's entrance, did as people usually do under such circumstances. Everybody called for his or her favorite remedy, which nobody brought; each cried for more air, at the same time carefully shutting out what air there was, by closing round the object of sympathy; and all wondered why somebody else didn't do what it never appeared to occur to them might be done by themselves.
The landlady, however, who had more readiness and activity than any of them, and who seemed to understand the case more quickly, soon came running in, with a little hot medicine, followed by her servant-girl, carrying vinegar, hartshorn, smelling-salts, and such other restoratives; which, being duly given, helped the child so far as to enable her to thank them in a faint voice, and to hold out her hand to the poor schoolmaster, who stood, with an anxious face, near her side. Without suffering her to speak another word, or so much as to stir a finger any more, the women straightway carried her off to bed; and, having covered her up warm, bathed her cold feet, and wrapped them in flannel, they sent a messenger for the doctor.
The doctor, who was a red-nosed gentleman with a great bunch of seals dangling below a waistcoat of ribbed black satin, arrived with all speed, and taking his seat by the bedside of poor Nell, drew out his watch, and felt her pulse. Then he looked at her tongue, then he felt her pulse again, and while he did so, he eyed the half-emptied wine-glass as if in profound abstraction.
"I should give her," said the doctor at length, "a teaspoonful, every now and then, of hot medicine."
"Why, that's exactly what we've done, sir!" said the delighted landlady.
"I should also," observed the doctor, who had passed the foot-bath on the stairs, "I should also," said the doctor, in a very wise tone of voice, "put her feet in hot water and wrap them up in flannel. I should likewise," said the doctor, with increased solemnity, "give her something light for supper--the wing of a roasted chicken now------"
"Why, goodness gracious me, sir, it's cooking at the kitchen fire this instant!" cried the landlady. And so indeed it was, for the schoolmaster had ordered it to be put down, and it was getting on so well that the doctor might have smelled it if he had tried; perhaps he did.
"You may then," said the doctor, rising gravely, "give her a glass of hot mulled port-wine, if she likes wine------"
"And a piece of toast, sir?" suggested the landlady.
"Ay," said the doctor, in a very dignified tone, "And a toast--of bread. But be very particular to make it of bread, if you please, ma'am."
With which parting advice, slowly and solemnly given, the doctor departed, leaving the whole house in admiration of that wisdom which agreed so closely with their own. Everybody said he was a very shrewd doctor indeed, and knew perfectly what people's bodies needed; which there appears some reason to suppose he did.
While her supper was preparing, the child fell into a refreshing sleep, from which they were obliged to rouse her when it was ready. As she showed extraordinary uneasiness on learning that her grandfather was below stairs, and as she was greatly troubled at the thought of their being apart, he took his supper with her. Finding her still very anxious for the old man, they made him up a bed in an inner room, to which he soon went. The key of this room happened by good-fortune to be on that side of the door which was in Nell's room; she turned it on him when the landlady had withdrawn, and crept to bed again with a thankful heart.
The schoolmaster sat for a long time smoking his pipe by the kitchen fire, which was now deserted, thinking, with a very happy face, on the fortunate chance which had brought him at just the right moment to the child's assistance.
The schoolmaster, as it appeared, was on his way to a new home. And when the child had recovered somewhat from her hunger and weariness, it was arranged that she and her grandfather should go with him to the village whither he was bound, and that he should endeavor to find them some work by which they could get their living.
It was a lonely little village, lying among the quiet country scenes Nell loved. And here, her grandfather being peaceful and at rest, a great calm fell upon the spirit of the child. Often she would steal into the church, and, sitting down among the quiet figures carved upon the tombs, would think of the summer days and the bright spring-time that would come; of the rays of sun that would fall in, aslant those sleeping forms; of the songs of birds, and the sweet air that would steal in. What if the spot awakened thoughts of death! It would be no pain to sleep amid such sights and sounds as these. For the time was drawing nearer every day when Nell was to rest indeed. She never murmured or complained, but faded like a light upon a summer's evening and died. Day after day and all day long, the old man, broken-hearted and with no love or care for anything in life, would sit beside her grave with her straw hat and the little basket she had been used to carry, waiting till she should come to him again. At last they found him lying dead upon the stone. And in the church where they had often prayed and mused and lingered, hand in hand, the child and the old man slept together.
[A] The Lord Chancellor, it may be explained, is the highest judge in the courts of England; and when in court always wears a great wig and a robe.
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