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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 24
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The Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 24 Post by :Asuquo Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dickens Date :June 2011 Read :3340

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The Old Curiosity Shop - Chapter 24

CHAPTER 24


It was not until they were quite exhausted and could no longer
maintain the pace at which they had fled from the race-ground, that
the old man and the child ventured to stop, and sit down to rest
upon the borders of a little wood. Here, though the course was
hidden from their view, they could yet faintly distinguish the
noise of distant shouts, the hum of voices, and the beating of
drums. Climbing the eminence which lay between them and the spot
they had left, the child could even discern the fluttering flags
and white tops of booths; but no person was approaching towards
them, and their resting-place was solitary and still.

Some time elapsed before she could reassure her trembling
companion, or restore him to a state of moderate tranquillity. His
disordered imagination represented to him a crowd of persons
stealing towards them beneath the cover of the bushes, lurking in
every ditch, and peeping from the boughs of every rustling tree. He
was haunted by apprehensions of being led captive to some gloomy
place where he would be chained and scourged, and worse than all,
where Nell could never come to see him, save through iron bars and
gratings in the wall. His terrors affected the child. Separation
from her grandfather was the greatest evil she could dread; and
feeling for the time as though, go where they would, they were to
be hunted down, and could never be safe but in hiding, her heart
failed her, and her courage drooped.

In one so young, and so unused to the scenes in which she had
lately moved, this sinking of the spirit was not surprising. But,
Nature often enshrines gallant and noble hearts in weak bosoms--
oftenest, God bless her, in female breasts--and when the child,
casting her tearful eyes upon the old man, remembered how weak he
was, and how destitute and helpless he would be if she failed him,
her heart swelled within her, and animated her with new strength
and fortitude.

'We are quite safe now, and have nothing to fear indeed, dear
grandfather,' she said.

'Nothing to fear!' returned the old man. 'Nothing to fear if they
took me from thee! Nothing to fear if they parted us! Nobody is
true to me. No, not one. Not even Nell!'

'Oh! do not say that,' replied the child, 'for if ever anybody was
true at heart, and earnest, I am. I am sure you know I am.'

'Then how,' said the old man, looking fearfully round, 'how can you
bear to think that we are safe, when they are searching for me
everywhere, and may come here, and steal upon us, even while we're
talking?'

'Because I'm sure we have not been followed,' said the child.
'Judge for yourself, dear grandfather: look round, and see how
quiet and still it is. We are alone together, and may ramble where
we like. Not safe! Could I feel easy--did I feel at ease--when
any danger threatened you?'

'True, too,' he answered, pressing her hand, but still looking
anxiously about. 'What noise was that?'

'A bird,' said the child, 'flying into the wood, and leading the
way for us to follow.' You remember that we said we would walk in
woods and fields, and by the side of rivers, and how happy we would
be--you remember that? But here, while the sun shines above our
heads, and everything is bright and happy, we are sitting sadly
down, and losing time. See what a pleasant path; and there's the
bird--the same bird--now he flies to another tree, and stays to
sing. Come!'

When they rose up from the ground, and took the shady track which
led them through the wood, she bounded on before, printing her tiny
footsteps in the moss, which rose elastic from so light a pressure
and gave it back as mirrors throw off breath; and thus she lured
the old man on, with many a backward look and merry beck, now
pointing stealthily to some lone bird as it perched and twittered
on a branch that strayed across their path, now stopping to listen
to the songs that broke the happy silence, or watch the sun as it
trembled through the leaves, and stealing in among the ivied trunks
of stout old trees, opened long paths of light. As they passed
onward, parting the boughs that clustered in their way, the
serenity which the child had first assumed, stole into her breast
in earnest; the old man cast no longer fearful looks behind, but
felt at ease and cheerful, for the further they passed into the
deep green shade, the more they felt that the tranquil mind of God
was there, and shed its peace on them.

At length the path becoming clearer and less intricate, brought
them to the end of the wood, and into a public road. Taking their
way along it for a short distance, they came to a lane, so shaded
by the trees on either hand that they met together over-head, and
arched the narrow way. A broken finger-post announced that this led
to a village three miles off; and thither they resolved to bend
their steps.

The miles appeared so long that they sometimes thought they must
have missed their road. But at last, to their great joy, it led
downwards in a steep descent, with overhanging banks over which the
footpaths led; and the clustered houses of the village peeped from
the woody hollow below.

It was a very small place. The men and boys were playing at cricket
on the green; and as the other folks were looking on, they wandered
up and down, uncertain where to seek a humble lodging. There was
but one old man in the little garden before his cottage, and him
they were timid of approaching, for he was the schoolmaster, and
had 'School' written up over his window in black letters on a white
board. He was a pale, simple-looking man, of a spare and meagre
habit, and sat among his flowers and beehives, smoking his pipe, in
the little porch before his door.

'Speak to him, dear,' the old man whispered.

'I am almost afraid to disturb him,' said the child timidly. 'He
does not seem to see us. Perhaps if we wait a little, he may look
this way.'

They waited, but the schoolmaster cast no look towards them, and
still sat, thoughtful and silent, in the little porch. He had a
kind face. In his plain old suit of black, he looked pale and
meagre. They fancied, too, a lonely air about him and his house,
but perhaps that was because the other people formed a merry
company upon the green, and he seemed the only solitary man in all
the place.

They were very tired, and the child would have been bold enough to
address even a schoolmaster, but for something in his manner which
seemed to denote that he was uneasy or distressed. As they stood
hesitating at a little distance, they saw that he sat for a few
minutes at a time like one in a brown study, then laid aside his
pipe and took a few turns in his garden, then approached the gate
and looked towards the green, then took up his pipe again with a
sigh, and sat down thoughtfully as before.

As nobody else appeared and it would soon be dark, Nell at length
took courage, and when he had resumed his pipe and seat, ventured
to draw near, leading her grandfather by the hand. The slight noise
they made in raising the latch of the wicket-gate, caught his
attention. He looked at them kindly but seemed disappointed too,
and slightly shook his head.

Nell dropped a curtsey, and told him they were poor travellers who
sought a shelter for the night which they would gladly pay for, so
far as their means allowed. The schoolmaster looked earnestly at
her as she spoke, laid aside his pipe, and rose up directly.

'If you could direct us anywhere,sir,' said the child, 'we should
take it very kindly.'

'You have been walking a long way,' said the schoolmaster.

'A long way, Sir,' the child replied.

'You're a young traveller, my child,' he said, laying his hand
gently on her head. 'Your grandchild, friend? '

'Aye, Sir,' cried the old man, 'and the stay and comfort of my
life.'

'Come in,' said the schoolmaster.

Without further preface he conducted them into his little
school-room, which was parlour and kitchen likewise, and told them
that they were welcome to remain under his roof till morning.
Before they had done thanking him, he spread a coarse white cloth
upon the table, with knives and platters; and bringing out some
bread and cold meat and a jug of beer, besought them to eat and
drink.

The child looked round the room as she took her seat. There were a
couple of forms, notched and cut and inked all over; a small deal
desk perched on four legs, at which no doubt the master sat; a few
dog's-eared books upon a high shelf; and beside them a motley
collection of peg-tops, balls, kites, fishing-lines, marbles,
half-eaten apples, and other confiscated property of idle urchins.
Displayed on hooks upon the wall in all their terrors, were the
cane and ruler; and near them, on a small shelf of its own, the
dunce's cap, made of old newspapers and decorated with glaring
wafers of the largest size. But, the great ornaments of the walls
were certain moral sentences fairly copied in good round text, and
well-worked sums in simple addition and multiplication, evidently
achieved by the same hand, which were plentifully pasted all round
the room: for the double purpose, as it seemed, of bearing
testimony to the excellence of the school, and kindling a worthy
emulation in the bosoms of the scholars.

'Yes,' said the old schoolmaster, observing that her attention was
caught by these latter specimens. 'That's beautiful writing, my
dear.'

'Very, Sir,' replied the child modestly, 'is it yours?'

'Mine!' he returned, taking out his spectacles and putting them on,
to have a better view of the triumphs so dear to his heart. 'I
couldn't write like that, now-a-days. No. They're all done by one
hand; a little hand it is, not so old as yours, but a very clever one.'

As the schoolmaster said this, he saw that a small blot of ink had
been thrown on one of the copies, so he took a penknife from his
pocket, and going up to the wall, carefully scraped it out. When he
had finished, he walked slowly backward from the writing, admiring
it as one might contemplate a beautiful picture, but with something
of sadness in his voice and manner which quite touched the child,
though she was unacquainted with its cause.

'A little hand indeed,' said the poor schoolmaster. 'Far beyond all
his companions, in his learning and his sports too, how did he ever
come to be so fond of me! That I should love him is no wonder, but
that he should love me--' and there the schoolmaster stopped, and
took off his spectacles to wipe them, as though they had grown dim.

'I hope there is nothing the matter,sir,' said Nell anxiously.

'Not much, my dear,' returned the schoolmaster. 'I hoped to have
seen him on the green to-night. He was always foremost among them.
But he'll be there to-morrow.'

'Has he been ill?' asked the child, with a child's quick sympathy.

'Not very. They said he was wandering in his head yesterday, dear
boy, and so they said the day before. But that's a part of that
kind of disorder; it's not a bad sign--not at all a bad sign.'
The child was silent. He walked to the door, and looked wistfully
out. The shadows of night were gathering, and all was still.

'If he could lean upon anybody's arm, he would come to me, I know,'
he said, returning into the room. 'He always came into the garden
to say good night. But perhaps his illness has only just taken a
favourable turn, and it's too late for him to come out, for it's
very damp and there's a heavy dew. it's much better he shouldn't
come to-night.'

The schoolmaster lighted a candle, fastened the window-shutter,
and closed the door. But after he had done this, and sat silent a
little time, he took down his hat, and said he would go and satisfy
himself, if Nell would sit up till he returned. The child readily
complied, and he went out.

She sat there half-an-hour or more, feeling the place very strange
and lonely, for she had prevailed upon the old man to go to bed,
and there was nothing to be heard but the ticking of an old clock,
and the whistling of the wind among the trees. When he returned, he
took his seat in the chimney corner, but remained silent for a long
time. At length he turned to her, and speaking very gently, hoped
she would say a prayer that night for a sick child.

'My favourite scholar!' said the poor schoolmaster, smoking a pipe
he had forgotten to light, and looking mournfully round upon the
walls. 'It is a little hand to have done all that, and waste away
with sickness. It is a very, very little hand!'

Content of CHAPTER 24 (Charles Dickens' novel: The Old Curiosity Shop)

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