'But,' I added, 'may I ask you a question?'
'Ay, sir,' replied the old man, 'What is it?'
'This delicate child,' said I, 'with so much beauty and intelligence--has she nobody to care for her but you? Has she no other companion or advisor?'
'No,' he returned, looking anxiously in my face, 'no, and she wants no other.'
'But are you not fearful,' said I, 'that you may misunderstand a charge so tender? I am sure you mean well, but are you quite certain that you know how to execute such a trust as this? I am an old man, like you, and I am actuated by an old man's concern in all that is young and promising. Do you not think that what I have seen of you and this little creature to-night must have an interest not wholly free from pain?'
'Sir,' rejoined the old man after a moment's silence.' I have no right to feel hurt at what you say. It is true that in many respects I am the child, and she the grown person--that you have seen already. But waking or sleeping, by night or day, in sickness or health, she is the one object of my care, and if you knew of how much care, you would look on me with different eyes, you would indeed. Ah! It's a weary life for an old man--a weary, weary life--but there is a great end to gain and that I keep before me.'
Seeing that he was in a state of excitement and impatience, I turned to put on an outer coat which I had thrown off on entering the room, purposing to say no more. I was surprised to see the child standing patiently by with a cloak upon her arm, and in her hand a hat, and stick.
'Those are not mine, my dear,' said I.
'No,' returned the child, 'they are grandfather's.'
'But he is not going out to-night.'
'Oh, yes, he is,' said the child, with a smile.
'And what becomes of you, my pretty one?'
'Me! I stay here of course. I always do.'
I looked in astonishment towards the old man, but he was, or feigned to be, busied in the arrangement of his dress. From him I looked back to the slight gentle figure of the child. Alone! In that gloomy place all the long, dreary night.
She evinced no consciousness of my surprise, but cheerfully helped the old man with his cloak, and when he was ready took a candle to light us out. Finding that we did not follow as she expected, she looked back with a smile and waited for us. The old man showed by his face that he plainly understood the cause of my hesitation, but he merely signed to me with an inclination of the head to pass out of the room before him, and remained silent. I had no resource but to comply.
When we reached the door, the child setting down the candle, turned to say good night and raised her face to kiss me. Then she ran to the old man, who folded her in his arms and bade God bless her.
'Sleep soundly, Nell,' he said in a low voice, 'and angels guard thy bed! Do not forget thy prayers, my sweet.'
'No, indeed,' answered the child fervently, 'they make me feel so happy!'
'That's well; I know they do; they should,' said the old man. 'Bless thee a hundred times! Early in the morning I shall be home.'
'You'll not ring twice,' returned the child. 'The bell wakes me, even in the middle of a dream.'
With this, they separated.