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Chapter 58

CHAPTER 58

In which one Scene of this History is closed


Dividing the distance into two days' journey, in order that his
charge might sustain the less exhaustion and fatigue from travelling
so far, Nicholas, at the end of the second day from their leaving
home, found himself within a very few miles of the spot where the
happiest years of his life had been passed, and which, while it
filled his mind with pleasant and peaceful thoughts, brought back
many painful and vivid recollections of the circumstances in which
he and his had wandered forth from their old home, cast upon the
rough world and the mercy of strangers.

It needed no such reflections as those which the memory of old days,
and wanderings among scenes where our childhood has been passed,
usually awaken in the most insensible minds, to soften the heart of
Nicholas, and render him more than usually mindful of his drooping
friend. By night and day, at all times and seasons: always
watchful, attentive, and solicitous, and never varying in the
discharge of his self-imposed duty to one so friendless and helpless
as he whose sands of life were now fast running out and dwindling
rapidly away: he was ever at his side. He never left him. To
encourage and animate him, administer to his wants, support and
cheer him to the utmost of his power, was now his constant and
unceasing occupation.

They procured a humble lodging in a small farmhouse, surrounded by
meadows where Nicholas had often revelled when a child with a troop
of merry schoolfellows; and here they took up their rest.

At first, Smike was strong enough to walk about, for short distances
at a time, with no other support or aid than that which Nicholas
could afford him. At this time, nothing appeared to interest him so
much as visiting those places which had been most familiar to his
friend in bygone days. Yielding to this fancy, and pleased to find
that its indulgence beguiled the sick boy of many tedious hours, and
never failed to afford him matter for thought and conversation
afterwards, Nicholas made such spots the scenes of their daily
rambles: driving him from place to place in a little pony-chair, and
supporting him on his arm while they walked slowly among these old
haunts, or lingered in the sunlight to take long parting looks of
those which were most quiet and beautiful.

It was on such occasions as these, that Nicholas, yielding almost
unconsciously to the interest of old associations, would point out
some tree that he had climbed, a hundred times, to peep at the young
birds in their nest; and the branch from which he used to shout to
little Kate, who stood below terrified at the height he had gained,
and yet urging him higher still by the intensity of her admiration.
There was the old house too, which they would pass every day,
looking up at the tiny window through which the sun used to stream
in and wake him on the summer mornings--they were all summer
mornings then--and climbing up the garden-wall and looking over,
Nicholas could see the very rose-bush which had come, a present to
Kate, from some little lover, and she had planted with her own
hands. There were the hedgerows where the brother and sister had so
often gathered wild flowers together, and the green fields and shady
paths where they had so often strayed. There was not a lane, or
brook, or copse, or cottage near, with which some childish event was
not entwined, and back it came upon the mind--as events of childhood
do--nothing in itself: perhaps a word, a laugh, a look, some slight
distress, a passing thought or fear: and yet more strongly and
distinctly marked, and better remembered, than the hardest trials or
severest sorrows of a year ago.

One of these expeditions led them through the churchyard where was
his father's grave. 'Even here,' said Nicholas softly, 'we used to
loiter before we knew what death was, and when we little thought
whose ashes would rest beneath; and, wondering at the silence, sit
down to rest and speak below our breath. Once, Kate was lost, and
after an hour of fruitless search, they found her, fast asleep,
under that tree which shades my father's grave. He was very fond of
her, and said when he took her up in his arms, still sleeping, that
whenever he died he would wish to be buried where his dear little
child had laid her head. You see his wish was not forgotten.'

Nothing more passed at the time, but that night, as Nicholas sat
beside his bed, Smike started from what had seemed to be a slumber,
and laying his hand in his, prayed, as the tears coursed down his
face, that he would make him one solemn promise.

'What is that?' said Nicholas, kindly. 'If I can redeem it, or hope
to do so, you know I will.'

'I am sure you will,' was the reply. 'Promise me that when I die, I
shall be buried near--as near as they can make my grave--to the tree
we saw today.'

Nicholas gave the promise; he had few words to give it in, but they
were solemn and earnest. His poor friend kept his hand in his, and
turned as if to sleep. But there were stifled sobs; and the hand
was pressed more than once, or twice, or thrice, before he sank to
rest, and slowly loosed his hold.

In a fortnight's time, he became too ill to move about. Once or
twice, Nicholas drove him out, propped up with pillows; but the
motion of the chaise was painful to him, and brought on fits of
fainting, which, in his weakened state, were dangerous. There was
an old couch in the house, which was his favourite resting-place by
day; and when the sun shone, and the weather was warm, Nicholas had
this wheeled into a little orchard which was close at hand, and his
charge being well wrapped up and carried out to it, they used to sit
there sometimes for hours together.

It was on one of these occasions that a circumstance took place,
which Nicholas, at the time, thoroughly believed to be the mere
delusion of an imagination affected by disease; but which he had,
afterwards, too good reason to know was of real and actual
occurrence.

He had brought Smike out in his arms--poor fellow! a child might
have carried him then--to see the sunset, and, having arranged his
couch, had taken his seat beside it. He had been watching the whole
of the night before, and being greatly fatigued both in mind and
body, gradually fell asleep.

He could not have closed his eyes five minutes, when he was awakened
by a scream, and starting up in that kind of terror which affects a
person suddenly roused, saw, to his great astonishment, that his
charge had struggled into a sitting posture, and with eyes almost
starting from their sockets, cold dew standing on his forehead, and
in a fit of trembling which quite convulsed his frame, was calling
to him for help.

'Good Heaven, what is this?' said Nicholas, bending over him. 'Be
calm; you have been dreaming.'

'No, no, no!' cried Smike, clinging to him. 'Hold me tight. Don't
let me go. There, there. Behind the tree!'

Nicholas followed his eyes, which were directed to some distance
behind the chair from which he himself had just risen. But, there
was nothing there.

'This is nothing but your fancy,' he said, as he strove to compose
him; 'nothing else, indeed.'

'I know better. I saw as plain as I see now,' was the answer. 'Oh!
say you'll keep me with you. Swear you won't leave me for an
instant!'

'Do I ever leave you?' returned Nicholas. 'Lie down again--there!
You see I'm here. Now, tell me; what was it?'

'Do you remember,' said Smike, in a low voice, and glancing
fearfully round, 'do you remember my telling you of the man who
first took me to the school?'

'Yes, surely.'

'I raised my eyes, just now, towards that tree--that one with the
thick trunk--and there, with his eyes fixed on me, he stood!'

'Only reflect for one moment,' said Nicholas; 'granting, for an
instant, that it's likely he is alive and wandering about a lonely
place like this, so far removed from the public road, do you think
that at this distance of time you could possibly know that man
again?'

'Anywhere--in any dress,' returned Smike; 'but, just now, he stood
leaning upon his stick and looking at me, exactly as I told you I
remembered him. He was dusty with walking, and poorly dressed--I
think his clothes were ragged--but directly I saw him, the wet
night, his face when he left me, the parlour I was left in, and the
people that were there, all seemed to come back together. When he
knew I saw him, he looked frightened; for he started, and shrunk
away. I have thought of him by day, and dreamt of him by night. He
looked in my sleep, when I was quite a little child, and has looked
in my sleep ever since, as he did just now.'

Nicholas endeavoured, by every persuasion and argument he could
think of, to convince the terrified creature that his imagination
had deceived him, and that this close resemblance between the
creation of his dreams and the man he supposed he had seen was but a
proof of it; but all in vain. When he could persuade him to remain,
for a few moments, in the care of the people to whom the house
belonged, he instituted a strict inquiry whether any stranger had
been seen, and searched himself behind the tree, and through the
orchard, and upon the land immediately adjoining, and in every place
near, where it was possible for a man to lie concealed; but all in
vain. Satisfied that he was right in his original conjecture, he
applied himself to calming the fears of Smike, which, after some
time, he partially succeeded in doing, though not in removing the
impression upon his mind; for he still declared, again and again, in
the most solemn and fervid manner, that he had positively seen what
he had described, and that nothing could ever remove his conviction
of its reality.

And now, Nicholas began to see that hope was gone, and that, upon
the partner of his poverty, and the sharer of his better fortune,
the world was closing fast. There was little pain, little
uneasiness, but there was no rallying, no effort, no struggle for
life. He was worn and wasted to the last degree; his voice had sunk
so low, that he could scarce be heard to speak. Nature was
thoroughly exhausted, and he had lain him down to die.

On a fine, mild autumn day, when all was tranquil and at peace: when
the soft sweet air crept in at the open window of the quiet room,
and not a sound was heard but the gentle rustling of the leaves:
Nicholas sat in his old place by the bedside, and knew that the time
was nearly come. So very still it was, that, every now and then, he
bent down his ear to listen for the breathing of him who lay asleep,
as if to assure himself that life was still there, and that he had
not fallen into that deep slumber from which on earth there is no
waking.

While he was thus employed, the closed eyes opened, and on the pale
face there came a placid smile.

'That's well!' said Nicholas. 'The sleep has done you good.'

'I have had such pleasant dreams,' was the answer. 'Such pleasant,
happy dreams!'

'Of what?' said Nicholas.

The dying boy turned towards him, and, putting his arm about his
neck, made answer, 'I shall soon be there!'

After a short silence, he spoke again.

'I am not afraid to die,' he said. 'I am quite contented. I almost
think that if I could rise from this bed quite well I would not wish
to do so, now. You have so often told me we shall meet again--so
very often lately, and now I feel the truth of that so strongly--
that I can even bear to part from you.'

The trembling voice and tearful eye, and the closer grasp of the arm
which accompanied these latter words, showed how they filled the
speaker's heart; nor were there wanting indications of how deeply
they had touched the heart of him to whom they were addressed.

'You say well,' returned Nicholas at length, 'and comfort me very
much, dear fellow. Let me hear you say you are happy, if you can.'

'I must tell you something, first. I should not have a secret from
you. You would not blame me, at a time like this, I know.'

'I blame you!' exclaimed Nicholas.

'I am sure you would not. You asked me why I was so changed, and--
and sat so much alone. Shall I tell you why?'

'Not if it pains you,' said Nicholas. 'I only asked that I might
make you happier, if I could.'

'I know. I felt that, at the time.' He drew his friend closer to
him. 'You will forgive me; I could not help it, but though I would
have died to make her happy, it broke my heart to see--I know he
loves her dearly--Oh! who could find that out so soon as I?'

The words which followed were feebly and faintly uttered, and broken
by long pauses; but, from them, Nicholas learnt, for the first time,
that the dying boy, with all the ardour of a nature concentrated on
one absorbing, hopeless, secret passion, loved his sister Kate.

He had procured a lock of her hair, which hung at his breast, folded
in one or two slight ribbons she had worn. He prayed that, when he
was dead, Nicholas would take it off, so that no eyes but his might
see it, and that when he was laid in his coffin and about to be
placed in the earth, he would hang it round his neck again, that it
might rest with him in the grave.

Upon his knees Nicholas gave him this pledge, and promised again
that he should rest in the spot he had pointed out. They embraced,
and kissed each other on the cheek.

'Now,' he murmured, 'I am happy.'

He fell into a light slumber, and waking smiled as before; then,
spoke of beautiful gardens, which he said stretched out before him,
and were filled with figures of men, women, and many children, all
with light upon their faces; then, whispered that it was Eden--and
so died.

Charles Dickens