Nell was stirring early in the morning, and having discharged her household tasks, and put everything in order for the good schoolmaster (though sorely against his will, for he would have spared her the pains), took down, from its nail by the fireside, a little bundle of keys with which the bachelor had formally invested her on the previous day, and went out alone to visit the old church.
The sky was serene and bright, the air clear, perfumed with the fresh scent of newly fallen leaves, and grateful to every sense. The neighbouring stream sparkled, and rolled onward with a tuneful sound; the dew glistened on the green mounds, like tears shed by Good Spirits over the dead. Some young children sported among the tombs, and hid from each other, with laughing faces. They had an infant with them, and had laid it down asleep upon a child’s grave, in a little bed of leaves. It was a new grave—the resting-place, perhaps, of some little creature, who, meek and patient in its illness, had often sat and watched them, and now seemed, to their minds, scarcely changed.
She drew near and asked one of them whose grave it was. The child answered that that was not its name; it was a garden—his brother’s. It was greener, he said, than all the other gardens, and the birds loved it better because he had been used to feed them. When he had done speaking, he looked at her with a smile, and kneeling down and nestling for a moment with his cheek against the turf, bounded merrily away.
She passed the church, gazing upward at its old tower, went through the wicket gate, and so into the village. The old sexton, leaning on a crutch, was taking the air at his cottage door, and gave her good morrow.
‘You are better?’ said the child, stopping to speak with him.
‘Ay surely,’ returned the old man. ‘I’m thankful to say, much better.’
‘You will be quite well soon.’
‘With Heaven’s leave, and a little patience. But come in, come in!’ The old man limped on before, and warning her of the downward step, which he achieved himself with no small difficulty, led the way into his little cottage.
‘It is but one room you see. There is another up above, but the stair has got harder to climb o’ late years, and I never use it. I’m thinking of taking to it again, next summer, though.’
The child wondered how a grey-headed man like him—one of his trade too—could talk of time so easily. He saw her eyes wandering to the tools that hung upon the wall, and smiled.
‘I warrant now,’ he said, ‘that you think all those are used in making graves.’
‘Indeed, I wondered that you wanted so many.’
‘And well you might. I am a gardener. I dig the ground, and plant things that are to live and grow. My works don’t all moulder away, and rot in the earth. You see that spade in the centre?’
‘The very old one—so notched and worn? Yes.’
‘That’s the sexton’s spade, and it’s a well-used one, as you see. We’re healthy people here, but it has done a power of work. If it could speak now, that spade, it would tell you of many an unexpected job that it and I have done together; but I forget ‘em, for my memory’s a poor one.—That’s nothing new,’ he added hastily. ‘It always was.’
‘There are flowers and shrubs to speak to your other work,’ said the child.
‘Oh yes. And tall trees. But they are not so separate from the sexton’s labours as you think.’
‘Not in my mind, and recollection—such as it is,’ said the old man. ‘Indeed they often help it. For say that I planted such a tree for such a man. There it stands, to remind me that he died. When I look at its broad shadow, and remember what it was in his time, it helps me to the age of my other work, and I can tell you pretty nearly when I made his grave.’
‘But it may remind you of one who is still alive,’ said the child.