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earnestness of his speech and manner, gave the child a confidence in
him. She told him all - that they had no friend or relative - and that she
sought a home in some remote place, where the temptation before which
her grandfather had fallen would never enter, and her late sorrows and
distresses could have no place.

The schoolmaster heard her with astonishment, and with admiration for
the heroism and patience of one so young. He then told her that he had
been appointed clerk and schoolmaster to a village a long way off, at
five-and-thirty pounds a year, and that he was on his way there now. He
concluded by saying that she and her grandfather must accompany him, and
that he would endeavor to find them some occupation by which they
could subsist.

Accordingly next evening they travelled on, with Nell comfortably
bestowed in a stage-wagon among the softer packages, her grandfather and
the schoolmaster walking on beside the driver, and the landlady and all
the good folks of the inn screaming out their good wishes and farewells.

It was a fine clear autumn morning, when they came upon the village of
their destination, and every bit of scenery, and stick and stone looked
beautiful to the child who had passed through such scenes of poverty and
horror. Leaving Nell and her grandfather upon the church porch, the
schoolmaster hurried off to present a letter, and to make inquiries
concerning his new position. After a long time he appeared, jingling a
bundle of rusty keys, and quite breathless with pleasure and haste. As a
result of his exertions on their behalf, Nell and her grandfather were
to occupy a small house next to the one apportioned to him. Having
disburdened himself of this great surprise, the schoolmaster then told
Nell that the house which was henceforth to be hers, had been occupied
by an old person who kept the keys of the church, opened and closed it
for the services, and showed it to strangers; that she had died not many
weeks ago, and nobody having yet been found to fill the office, he had
made bold to ask for it for her and her grandfather. As a result of his
testimony to their ability and honesty, they were already appointed to
the vacant post.

"There's a small allowance of money," said the schoolmaster. "It is not
much, but enough to live upon in this retired spot. By clubbing our
funds together, we shall do bravely; no fear of that."

"Heaven bless and prosper you!" sobbed the child.

"Amen, my dear," returned her friend cheerfully, "and all of us, as it
will, and has, in leading us through sorrow and trouble, to this
tranquil life. But we must look at my house now. Come!"

To make their dwellings habitable, and as full of comfort as they
could, was now their pleasant care, and in a short time each had a
cheerful fire crackling on the hearth. Nell, busily plying her needle,
repaired the tattered window-hangings, and made them whole and decent.
The schoolmaster swept the ground before the door, trimmed the long
grass, trained the ivy and creeping plants, and gave to the outer walls
a cheery air of home. The old man lent his aid to both, went here and
there on little patient services and was happy. Neighbors too, proffered
their help, or sent their children with such small presents or loans as
the strangers needed most. It was a busy day, and night came on all
too soon.

They took their supper together, and when they had finished it, drew
round the fire and discussed their future plans. Before they separated,
the schoolmaster read some prayers aloud; and then, full of gratitude
and happiness, they parted for the night.

When every sound was hushed, and her grandfather sleeping, the child
lingered before the dying embers, and thought of her past fortunes as if
they had been a dream, and the deep and thoughtful feelings which
absorbed her, gave her no sensation of terror or alarm. A change had
been gradually stealing over her, in the time of her loneliness and
sorrow. With failing strength and heightened resolution, there had
sprung up a purified and altered mind; there had grown in her bosom
those blessed hopes and thoughts which are the portion of few but the
weak and drooping. There were none to see the frail figure as it glided
from the fire and leaned pensively at the casement; none but the stars
to look into the upturned face and read its history.

It was long before the child closed the window, and approached her
bed - but when she did - it was to sink into a sleep filled with sweet and
happy dreams.

With the morning came the renewal of yesterday's labors, the revival of
its pleasant thoughts, the restoration of its energies, cheerfulness and
hope. They worked gayly until noon, and then visited the clergyman, who
received them kindly, and at once showed an interest in Nell. The
schoolmaster had already told her story. They had no other friends or
home to leave, he said, and had come to share his fortunes. He loved the
child as though she were his own.

"Well, well," said the clergyman. "Let it be as you desire, she is very
young."

"Old in adversity and trial, sir," replied the schoolmaster.

"God help her. Let her rest and forget them," said the old gentleman.
"But an old church is a gloomy place for one so young as you, my child."

"Oh no, sir," returned Nell, "I have no such thoughts, indeed."

"I would rather see her dancing on the green at night," said the old
gentleman, laying his hand upon her head, "than have her sitting in the
shadow of our mouldering arches. You must look to this, and see that her
heart does not grow heavy among the solemn ruins."

After more kind words, they withdrew, and from that time Nell's heart
was filled with a serene and peaceful joy, and she occupied herself with
such light tasks as were hers to accomplish, and the peace of the simple
village moved her deeply, while more and more she grew to love the old
and silent chapel.

She sat down one day in this old and silent place, among the stark
figures on the tombs and gazing round with a feeling of awe tempered
with calm delight, felt that now she was happy and at rest. She took a
Bible and read; then laying it down, thought of the summer days and
bright springtime that would come - of the rays of sun that would fall in
aslant upon the sleeping forms - of the song of birds, and growth of buds
and blossoms out of doors - What if the spot awakened thoughts of death?
Die who would, these sights and sounds would still go on, as happily as
ever. It would be no pain to sleep amidst them.

She left the chapel, and climbed to its turret-top. Oh! the glory of the
sudden burst of light; the freshness of the fields and woods, meeting
the bright blue sky; everything so beautiful and happy! It was like
passing from death to life; it was drawing nearer heaven. And yet the
dim old chapel had for her a depth of fascination which the outer world
did not possess. Again that day, twice, she stole back to the chapel,
and read from the same book, or indulged in the same quiet train of
thought. Even when night fell, she sat like one rooted to the spot until
they found her there and took her home. She looked pale but very happy,
but as the schoolmaster stooped down to kiss her cheek, he thought he
felt a tear upon his face.

From a village bachelor, who took great interest in the beautiful child,
Nell soon learned the histories connected with every tomb and
gravestone, with every gallery, wall, and crypt in the dim old church.
These she treasured in her mind, dwelling on them often in her thoughts
and repeating them to those sightseers who cared to hear them. Her
duties were not arduous, but she did not regain her strength, and in her
grandfather's mind sprang up a solicitude about her which never left
him. From the time of his awakening to her weakness, never did he have
any care for himself, any thought of his own comfort, which could
distract his attention from the gentle object of his love and care, He
would follow her up and down, waiting till she should tire, and lean
upon his arm - he would sit opposite to her, 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 night to listen to her breathing in her
sleep. 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 upon the poor old man.

Weeks crept on - sometimes the child, exhausted, would pass whole
evenings on a couch beside the fire. At such times, the schoolmaster
would read aloud to her, and seldom an evening passed but the bachelor
came in and took his turn at reading. During the daytime the child was
mostly out of doors, and all the strangers who came to see the church,
praised the child's beauty and sense, and all the neighbors, and all the
villagers, and the very schoolboys grew to have a fondness for
poor Nell.

Meanwhile, in that busy world which Nell and her grandfather had left
behind them so many months before, there had appeared a stranger, who
gave up all his time and energy to endeavoring to trace the wanderers.
He was Nell's grandfather's younger brother, who had for many years been
a traveller in distant lands, with almost no information of his brother.
His thoughts began to revert constantly to the days when they were boys
together, and obeying the impulse which impelled him, he hastened home,
arriving one evening at his brother's door, only to find the
wanderers gone.

By dint of ceaseless watchfulness and vigilance, at last he gained a
clue to their retreat, and lost no time in following it up, taking with
him Kit Nubbles, the errand-boy at the Shop in old days, who, though
now in the employ of kind Mr. Garland, was still loyal to the memory of
his beloved Miss Nelly - and only too grateful to be allowed to go in
search of her, with the stranger whom she would not recognize. So
together they journeyed to the peaceful village, where Nell and her
grandfather were hidden, Kit carrying with him Nell's bird in his own
cage. She would be glad to see it, he knew, but alas for Kit - they found
sweet Nell in the sleep that knows no waking on this our earth.

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 favor. "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 forever.

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, there had been the same mild lovely look. So shall we
know the angels in their majesty, after death.

The old man 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 paths she had trodden,
as it were, but yesterday - could know her never more.

She had been dead two days. She died soon after daybreak. They had read
and talked to her in the earlier portion of the night, but as the hours
crept on she sunk to sleep. They could tell, by what she faintly uttered
in her dreams, that they were of her journeyings with the old man; they
were of no painful scenes but of people who had helped and used them
kindly, for she often said, "God bless you!" with great fervor. Waking,
she never wandered in her mind but once, and that was of beautiful music
which she said was in the air. God knows. It may have been.

Opening her eyes at last, from a very quiet sleep, she begged that they
would kiss her once again. That done, she turned to the old man with a
lovely smile upon her face - such, they said, as they had never seen, and
never could forget - and clung with both arms about his neck. They did
not know that she was dead, at first.

She would like to see poor Kit, she had often said of late. She wished
there was somebody to take her love to Kit. And even then, she never
thought or spoke about him but with something of her old clear
merry laugh.

For the rest, she had never murmured or complained, but with a quiet
mind, and manner quite unaltered - save that she every day became more
earnest and more grateful to them - faded like the light upon a
summer's evening.

They carried her to an old nook, where she had many and many a time sat
musing, and laid their burden softly on the pavement. The light streamed
on it through the colored window - a window where the boughs of trees
were ever rustling in the summer, and where the birds sang sweetly all
day long. With every breath of air that stirred among those branches in
the sunshine, some trembling changing light would fall upon her grave.

One called to mind how he had seen her sitting on that very spot, and
how her book had fallen on her lap, and she was gazing with a pensive
face upon the sky. Another told how she had loved to linger in the
church when all was quiet, and even to climb the tower stair with no
more light than that of the moon's rays stealing through the loopholes
in the thick old wall. A whisper went about among the oldest that she
had seen and talked with angels. Then, when the dusk of evening had come
on, with tranquil and submissive hearts they turned away, and left the
child with God.

Oh, it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach;
but let no man reject it, for it is a mighty, universal Truth. When
Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from
which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes
of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every
tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves some good is born,
some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer's steps there spring up
bright creations to defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of
light to heaven.



THE INFANT PHENOMENON



[Illustration: THE INFANT PHENOMENON]



THE INFANT PHENOMENON

Mr. Vincent Crummles was manager of a theatrical company, and also the
head of a most remarkable family indeed, each member of which was gifted
with an extraordinary combination of talent and attractiveness, and most
remarkable of all the family was the Infant Phenomenon.

After Nicholas Nickleby, teacher at Dotheboys Hall, quitted that
wretched institution in disgrace, because he had resented injuries
inflicted upon the scholars in general, and upon the poor half-starved,
ill-used drudge, Smike, in particular, Smike stole away from the place
where he had been so cruelly used, to follow his defender, and the two
journeyed on together towards Portsmouth, resting for the night at a
roadside inn some miles from their destination. At the inn they met Mr.
Crummles who, upon discovering them to be destitute of money, and
desirous of obtaining employment as soon as possible, offered them both
engagements in his company, which offer, after a brief deliberation,
Nicholas decided to accept, until something more to his liking should be
available.

Accordingly they journeyed to Portsmouth, together with Mr. Crummles and
the master Crummleses, and accompanied the manager through the town on
his way to the theatre.

They passed a great many bills pasted against the wall, and displayed
in windows, wherein the names of Mr. Vincent Crummles, Mrs. Vincent
Crummles, Master Crummles, Master Peter Crummles, and Miss Crummles,
were printed in large letters, and everything else in very small
letters; and turning at length into an entry in which was a strong smell
of orange-peel and lamp-oil, with an under-current of saw-dust, groping
their way through a dark passage, and descending a step or two, emerged
upon the stage of the Portsmouth theatre.

It was not very light, and as Nicholas looked about him, ceiling, pit,
boxes, gallery, orchestra, fittings, and decorations of every kind, - all
looked coarse, cold, gloomy and wretched.

"Is this a theatre?" whispered Smike, in amazement; "I thought it was a
blaze of light and finery."

"Why, so it is," replied Nicholas, hardly less surprised; "But not by
day, Smike, - not by day."

At this moment the manager's voice was heard, introducing the
new-comers, under the stage names of Johnson and Digby, to Mrs.
Crummles, a portly lady in a tarnished silk cloak, with her bonnet
dangling by the strings, and with a quantity of hair braided in a large
festoon over each temple; who greeted them with great cordiality.

While they were chatting with her, there suddenly bounded on to the
stage from some mysterious inlet, a little girl in a dirty white frock,
with tucks up to the knees, short trousers, sandalled shoes, white
spencer, pink gauze bonnet, green veil and curl papers, who turned a
pirouette, then looking off in the opposite wing, shrieked, bounded
forward to within six inches of the footlights, and fell into a
beautiful attitude of terror, as a shabby gentleman in an old pair of
buff slippers came in at one powerful slide, and chattering his teeth
fiercely, brandished a walking-stick.

"They are going through, 'The Indian Savage and the Maiden,'" said Mrs.
Crummles.

"Oh!" said the manager, "the little ballet interlude. Very good. Go on.
A little this way, if you please, Mr. Johnson. That'll do. Now!"

The manager clapped his hands as a signal to proceed, and the Savage,
becoming ferocious, made a slide towards the Maiden; but the Maiden
avoided him in six twirls, and came down, at the end of the last one,
upon the very points of her toes. This seemed to make some impression
upon the Savage, for after a little more ferocity and chasing of the
Maiden into corners, he began to relent, and stroked his face several
times with his right thumb and forefingers, thereby intimating that he
was struck with admiration of the Maiden's beauty. Acting upon the
impulse of this passion, he began to hit himself severe thumps in the
chest, and to exhibit other indications of being desperately in love,
which, being rather a prosy proceeding, was very likely the cause of the
Maiden's falling asleep; whether it was or no, asleep she did fall,
sound as a church, on a sloping bank, and the Savage, perceiving it,
leant his left ear on his left hand, and nodded sideways, to intimate to
all whom it might concern that she _was_ asleep, and no shamming. Being
left to himself, the Savage had a dance all alone. Just as he left off,
the Maiden woke up, rubbed her eyes, got off the bank, and had a dance
all alone too - such a dance that the Savage looked on in ecstacy all the
while, and when it was done, plucked from a neighboring tree some
botanical curiosity, resembling a small pickled cabbage, and offered it
to the Maiden, who at first wouldn't have it, but on the Savage shedding
tears, relented. Then the Savage jumped for joy; then the Maiden jumped
for rapture at the sweet smell of the pickled cabbage; then the Savage
and the Maiden danced violently together, and finally the Savage
dropped down on one knee, and the Maiden stood on one leg upon his other
knee; thus concluding the ballet, and leaving the spectators in a state
of pleasing uncertainty whether she would ultimately marry the Savage,
or return to her friends.

"Bravo!" cried Nicholas, resolved to make the best of everything.
"Beautiful!"

"This, sir," said Mr. Vincent Crummles, bringing the Maiden forward,
"This is the Infant Phenomenon - Miss Ninetta Crummles."

"Your daughter?" inquired Nicholas.

"My daughter - my daughter," replied Mr. Crummles; "the idol of every
place we go into, sir. We have had complimentary letters about this
girl, sir, from the nobility and gentry of almost every town
in England."

"I am not surprised at that," said Nicholas; "she must be quite a
natural genius."

"Quite a - !" Mr. Crummles stopped: language was not powerful enough to
describe the Infant Phenomenon. "I'll tell you what, sir," he said; "the
talent of this child is not to be imagined. She must be seen,
sir - seen - to be ever so faintly appreciated. There; go to your
mother, my dear."

"May I ask how old she is?" inquired Nicholas.

"You may, sir," replied Mr. Crummles, "She is ten years of age, sir,"

"Not more?"

"Not a day."

"Dear me," said Nicholas, "it's extraordinary."

It was; for the Infant Phenomenon certainly looked older, and had
moreover, been precisely the same age for certainly five years. But she
had been kept up late every night, and put upon an unlimited allowance
of gin and water from infancy, to prevent her growing tall, and perhaps
this system of training had produced in the Infant Phenomenon these
additional phenomena.

When this dialogue was concluded, another member of the company, Mr.
Folair, joined Nicholas, and confided to him the contempt of the entire
troupe for the Infant Phenomenon. "Infant Humbug sir!" he said. "There
isn't a female child of common sharpness in a charity school that
couldn't do better than that. She may thank her stars she was born a
manager's daughter."

"You seem to take it to heart," observed Nicholas with a smile.

"Yes, by Jove, and well I may," said Mr. Folair testily "isn't it enough
to make a man crusty, to see the little sprawler put up in the best
business every night, and actually keeping money out of the house by
being forced down the people's throats while other people are passed
over? Why, I know of fifteen-and-sixpence that came to Southampton last
month to see me dance the Highland Fling, and what's the consequence?
I've never been put up at it since - never once - while the 'Infant
Phenomenon' has been grinning through artificial flowers at five people
and a baby in the pit, and two boys in the gallery, every night."

From these bitter remarks, it may be inferred that there were two ways
of looking at the performances of the Infant Phenomenon, but as jealousy
is well known to be unjust in its criticism, and as the Infant was too
highly praised by her own band of admirers to be much affected by such
remarks, if any of them reached her ears, there is no evidence that her
joy was diminished by reason of the complaints of captious
fault-finders.

At the first evening performance which Nicholas witnessed, he found the
various members of the company very much changed; by reason of false
hair, false color, false calves, false muscles, they had become
different beings; the stage also was set in the most elaborate
fashion, - in short everything was on a scale of the utmost splendor and
preparation.

Nicholas was standing contemplating the first scene when the manager
accosted him.

"Been in front to-night?" said Mr. Crummles.

"No," replied Nicholas, "not yet. I am going to see the play."

"We've had a pretty good Let," said Mr. Crummles. "Four front places in
the centre, and the whole of the stage box."

"Oh, indeed!" said Nicholas; "a family, I suppose?"

"Yes," replied Mr. Crummles. "It's an affecting thing. There are six
children, and they never come unless the Phenomenon plays."

It would have been difficult for any party to have visited the theatre
on a night when the Phenomenon did _not_ play, inasmuch as she always
sustained one, and not uncommonly two or three characters, every night;
but Nicholas, sympathizing with the feelings of a father, refrained from


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Online LibraryKate Dickinson SweetserTen Girls from Dickens → online text (page 6 of 15)