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Second Conversation on the Communion of Saints.
"When we last met, my dear young people," said the lady of the manor, on finding herself again surrounded by her amiable little circle, "I promised you a narrative, in which the subject of divine communion is brought forward in a manner which I trust will please you."
On hearing this, the young ladies smiled, and drew their chairs closer round the table, previous to the com- vmencement of the story.
"I have already, my dear young people," said the lady of the manor, "brought you acquainted with my beloved father, and his dwelling in the same parish with the Earl of N , whose beautiful parks and venerable woods overran the whole neighbourhood, supplying a variety of exquisite natural scenes, such as the finest landscape painter would have found it difficult to represent with any degree of truth.
"In the deepest recesses of these woods, near the spot where a pure stream of water rushed abruptly from the higher grounds into a deep dingle, stood an old timber-built cottage, near which was a wooden bridge thrown from one side to the other of the narrow dell, in order to facilitate the passage of the traveller over the stream. On the opposite side the wood thickened so much that another cottage, which was situated among the trees, was only discernible by those who looked up the dingle, from its chimney and a small portion of its thatched roof which peeped from beneath the shade.
"In the first of these cottages lived one Henry Hart, a
very old man, when I was a little child, whose business was that of a wood-cutter. This man had in his youth been remarkably handsome; and when I first beheld him he exhibited the finest specimen I think I ever remember to have seen of comely and venerable old age. As he had from his youth been constantly exposed to the open air, every part of his face was ruddy, excepting that which had always been covered with his hat, which still retained the clear white of his natural complexion. His eyes, which were peculiarly fine, were so expressive that my father often confessed his astonishment at their being set in the head of a poor working-man; and his regular features were set off by his milk-white locks, which hung in curls from his head. The old man was, however, so reserved in his manner, that my father had resided in the parish many years without ever being able to draw him out in conversation, although he had often tried to do so when meeting him by chance in the woods. Neither could any person in the parish boast of being better acquainted with him, for he lived in great solitude, his house being kept by a deaf old woman, with whom he seldom, as she said, entered into discourse, though he read the Holy Scriptures to her every night, and sometimes commented on them for her instruction. With other persons he never mixed, excepting on occasions of public service at the church, from which he seldom absented himself.
"My father, who much admired the appearance of this old man, and who could not but greatly regret his reserve, feeling, as he said, a strong persuasion that if the old man could but be induced to speak, he would be found more intelligent than persons in his situation commonly are, used to call him the Hermit of the Dale, and not seldom applied to him the words of the poet—
'Far in a wild, unknown to public view,
But while we thought that my father was unreasonably ennobling a poor peasant by comparing him to the poet's hermit, we, in fact, by such comparison, fell far short of the real worth and dignity of this old man's character.
"I do not exactly recollect my age at the time, but at any rate I know that I was old enough to reason on many things that passed, when Sunday-schools began to be first talked of. These were originally projected by a Mr. Raikes of Glocester; and my father no sooner heard of them than he resolved to establish one in his
parish. Lord N very kindly supplied a room for
the purpose; but we were at a loss for some time about procuring a teacher. I recollect that my father, with my little assistance, supplied the place for some Sundays; but soon found the labour too much for him in addition to his other Sunday duties: and I was altogether too young for such an undertaking.
"While we were in this perplexity, and could meet with no one whom we thought fit to place in this responsible situation, Henry Hart, to our great surprise, the reserved old man whom we had called a hermit, came into the school-room, and with great humility offered his poor services, as he called them.
"I shall never forget his appearance on presenting himself before us. He wore a russet suit of clothes, his linen, though coarse, being clean and white: he had taken off his hat, and his grey hair was parted on his brow. He smiled while addressing my father, and said, he never should have presumed to offer himself for such a service, had any other person come forward.
"'I think then,' said my father, 'if I am not much mistaken, we shall have reason to rejoice, Henry Hart, that no one else has come forward.'
"The old man bowed in reply, and lifted up his eyes as if in prayer, but said nothing.
"Henry Hart was immediately installed in his office as master of the little school. He was then sixty-five years of age, and he retained his situation ten years. My father was really astonished to find in this poor and retired old man such a depth of Christian knowledge and experience as he had scarcely ever met with through the whole course of his life.
"In consequence of his situation as master of the Sunday-school, my father had an opportunity of frequent conversation with him; and the old man, as is commonly the case with persons of very silent and retired habits, when he became accustomed to my father, became also particularly open and unreserved. Neither was my father ashamed to acknowledge that he was often very much the better for his conversation. However, notwithstanding the frequent exchange of sentiments which passed between Henry Hart and my father, the latter never became acquainted with the real history of this old man, till a few months before his death, which happened in his seventy-sixth year, exactly ten years from the time of his first undertaking the charge of the Sunday-school—an office which he had discharged with great advantage to the parish, it having pleased God to bless his instructions to the everlasting benefit of many souls.
"Henry Hart died at the latter end of the month of February, after having been confined to his house for several months, during which my father had been his constant visitor. It was in this interval, that my father induced him to give an account of his life; and finding that it abounded with circumstances of interest, he failed not to commit it to paper, for the edification and amusement of those into whose hands it might chance to fall."
The lady of the manor then opened a little manuscript, and read as follows.
The History of Henry Hart; related by himself.
"My father," said Henry Hart, "was employed by the father and grandfather of the present Lord N , as wood-cutter. There was not a man in all the country who was a better judge of timber than my father: he was moreover an upright man in all his dealings, and was accordingly much accounted of by his lord: insomuch that a tree was seldom cut down for sale without his approval. For Lord N and those that went before him," said the old man, "jealous of the honour of their family, which had so long been served by my father and his father, have never resembled the improvident spendthrifts of the present day—who deprive the groves of their ancient glories, and cut off the hopes of rising forests, to satisfy the cravings of such as administer to their ruinous propensities. No, Sir," added the hoary headed peasant, addressing my father, and gathering animatior as he proceeded, "not a tree has ever been cut down in these woods since the memory of man, till it has attained the perfection of its growth, and not even then, unless another was rising up by its side to fill its place. I can safely assert this, because, with the exception of our family, and by chance another or so under our direction, no man ever ventured to lift an axe in these forests. My father, as I have said, was accustomed almost all his lifetime to work alone, and not in company with others. And as his jobs, for the most part, lay in solitary and retired situations, where he heard no sound but that of the strokes of his own hatchet and the echo of those strokes, he became, towards his old age especially, a man who thought more than he spoke; and from following the same mode of life, I myself fell very much into the same habit in this particular. But more of this hereafter.
"I was born in this cottage, where, to all appearance, I am like to die. My mother, who was as tender a parent as child ever had, died when I was about twelve years of age, leaving my father to take charge of me and a brother who was about two years older than myself. As we had been instructed in reading at the parish school, and were, for persons in our station, tolerably good scholars, after my mother's death my father took us entirely from school, when he put my brother apprentice to a miller, while he kept me with himself to assist him in his work in the woods.
"Now just over the stream, on the other side of the dingle, across the bridge, as you well know, Sir, stands a cottage, which, to appearance, is as old if not older than this, if one may judge by the wood-work round the fire-place, which is cut and carved in a strange manner, and by some panes of painted glass still remaining in the kitchen-window, which folks do not scruple to say, were taken from the windows of an old monastery when the Papists were driven out of the country, in the days of our Queen Elizabeth. However that be, the house is a very old one, not many such I believe being now to be seen.
"When I was a child, this cottage was occupied by one Robert Gray, by trade a thatcher, a very decent, quiet man. His wife, who was called in the parish Amy