After a long time, the schoolmaster appeared at the wicket-gate of the churchyard, and hurried towards them, tingling in his hand, as he came along, a bundle of rusty keys. He was quite breathless with pleasure and haste when he reached the porch, and at first could only point towards the old building which the child had been contemplating so earnestly.
‘You see those two old houses,’ he said at last.
‘Yes, surely,’ replied Nell. ‘I have been looking at them nearly all the time you have been away.’
‘And you would have looked at them more curiously yet, if you could have guessed what I have to tell you,’ said her friend. ‘One of those houses is mine.’
Without saying any more, or giving the child time to reply, the schoolmaster took her hand, and, his honest face quite radiant with exultation, led her to the place of which he spoke.
They stopped before its low arched door. After trying several of the keys in vain, the schoolmaster found one to fit the huge lock, which turned back, creaking, and admitted them into the house.
The room into which they entered was a vaulted chamber once nobly ornamented by cunning architects, and still retaining, in its beautiful groined roof and rich stone tracery, choice remnants of its ancient splendour. Foliage carved in the stone, and emulating the mastery of Nature’s hand, yet remained to tell how many times the leaves outside had come and gone, while it lived on unchanged. The broken figures supporting the burden of the chimney-piece, though mutilated, were still distinguishable for what they had been—far different from the dust without—and showed sadly by the empty hearth, like creatures who had outlived their kind, and mourned their own too slow decay.
In some old time—for even change was old in that old place—a wooden partition had been constructed in one part of the chamber to form a sleeping-closet, into which the light was admitted at the same period by a rude window, or rather niche, cut in the solid wall. This screen, together with two seats in the broad chimney, had at some forgotten date been part of the church or convent; for the oak, hastily appropriated to its present purpose, had been little altered from its former shape, and presented to the eye a pile of fragments of rich carving from old monkish stalls.
An open door leading to a small room or cell, dim with the light that came through leaves of ivy, completed the interior of this portion of the ruin. It was not quite destitute of furniture. A few strange chairs, whose arms and legs looked as though they had dwindled away with age; a table, the very spectre of its race: a great old chest that had once held records in the church, with other quaintly-fashioned domestic necessaries, and store of fire-wood for the winter, were scattered around, and gave evident tokens of its occupation as a dwelling-place at no very distant time.
The child looked around her, with that solemn feeling with which we contemplate the work of ages that have become but drops of water in the great ocean of eternity. The old man had followed them, but they were all three hushed for a space, and drew their breath softly, as if they feared to break the silence even by so slight a sound.
‘It is a very beautiful place!’ said the child, in a low voice.
‘I almost feared you thought otherwise,’ returned the schoolmaster. ‘You shivered when we first came in, as if you felt it cold or gloomy.’
‘It was not that,’ said Nell, glancing round with a slight shudder. ‘Indeed I cannot tell you what it was, but when I saw the outside, from the church porch, the same feeling came over me. It is its being so old and grey perhaps.’
‘A peaceful place to live in, don’t you think so?’ said her friend.
‘Oh yes,’ rejoined the child, clasping her hands earnestly. ‘A quiet, happy place—a place to live and learn to die in!’ She would have said more, but that the energy of her thoughts caused her voice to falter, and come in trembling whispers from her lips.