I noticed these objects cursorily only — in them there was nothing extraordinary. A group of more interest appeared near the hearth, sitting still amidst the rosy peace and warmth suffusing it. Two young, graceful women — ladies in every point — sat, one in a low rocking-chair, the other on a lower stool; both wore deep mourning of crape and bombazeen, which sombre garb singularly set off very fair necks and faces: a large old pointer dog rested its massive head on the knee of one girl — in the lap of the other was cushioned a black cat.
A strange place was this humble kitchen for such occupants! Who were they? They could not be the daughters of the elderly person at the table; for she looked like a rustic, and they were all delicacy and cultivation. I had nowhere seen such faces as theirs: and yet, as I gazed on them, I seemed intimate with every lineament. I cannot call them handsome — they were too pale and grave for the word: as they each bent over a book, they looked thoughtful almost to severity. A stand between them supported a second candle and two great volumes, to which they frequently referred, comparing them, seemingly, with the smaller books they held in their hands, like people consulting a dictionary to aid them in the task of translation. This scene was as silent as if all the figures had been shadows and the firelit apartment a picture: so hushed was it, I could hear the cinders fall from the grate, the clock tick in its obscure corner; and I even fancied I could distinguish the click-click of the woman's knitting-needles. When, therefore, a voice broke the strange stillness at last, it was audible enough to me.
"Listen, Diana," said one of the absorbed students; "Franz and old Daniel are together in the night-time, and Franz is telling a dream from which he has awakened in terror — listen!" And in a low voice she read something, of which not one word was intelligible to me; for it was in an unknown tongue — neither French nor Latin. Whether it were Greek or German I could not tell.
"That is strong," she said, when she had finished: "I relish it." The other girl, who had lifted her head to listen to her sister, repeated, while she gazed at the fire, a line of what had been read. At a later day, I knew the language and the book; therefore, I will here quote the line: though, when I first heard it, it was only like a stroke on sounding brass to me — conveying no meaning: —
"'Da trat hervor Einer, anzusehen wie die Sternen Nacht.' Good! good!" she exclaimed, while her dark and deep eye sparkled. "There you have a dim and mighty archangel fitly set before you! The line is worth a hundred pages of fustian. 'Ich wage die Gedanken in der Schale meines Zornes und die Werke mit dem Gewichte meines Grimms.' I like it!"
Both were again silent.
"Is there ony country where they talk i' that way?" asked the old woman, looking up from her knitting.
"Yes, Hannah — a far larger country than England, where they talk in no other way."
"Well, for sure case, I knawn't how they can understand t' one t'other: and if either o' ye went there, ye could tell what they said, I guess?"
"We could probably tell something of what they said, but not all — for we are not as clever as you think us, Hannah. We don't speak German, and we cannot read it without a dictionary to help us."
"And what good does it do you?"
"We mean to teach it some time — or at least the elements, as they say; and then we shall get more money than we do now."
"Varry like: but give ower studying; ye've done enough for to-night."
"I think we have: at least I'm tired. Mary, are you?"
"Mortally: after all, it's tough work fagging away at a language with no master but a lexicon."
"It is, especially such a language as this crabbed but glorious Deutsch. I wonder when St. John will come home."
"Surely he will not be long now: it is just ten (looking at a little gold watch she drew from her girdle). It rains fast, Hannah: will you have the goodness to look at the fire in the parlour?"
The woman rose: she opened a door, through which I dimly saw a passage: soon I heard her stir a fire in an inner room; she presently came back.
"Ah, childer!" said she, "it fair troubles me to go into yond' room now: it looks so lonesome wi' the chair empty and set back in a corner."
She wiped her eyes with her apron: the two girls, grave before, looked sad now.
"But he is in a better place," continued Hannah: "we shouldn't wish him here again. And then, nobody need to have a quieter death nor he had."
"You say he never mentioned us?" inquired one of the ladies.
"He hadn't time, bairn: he was gone in a minute, was your father. He had been a bit ailing like the day before, but naught to signify; and when Mr. St. John asked if he would like either o' ye to be sent for, he fair laughed at him. He began again with a bit of a heaviness in his head the next day — that is, a fortnight sin' — and he went to sleep and niver wakened: he wor a'most stark when your brother went into t' chamber and fand him. Ah, childer! that's t' last o' t' old stock — for ye and Mr. St. John is like of different soart to them 'at's gone; for all your mother wor mich i' your way, and a'most as book-learned. She wor the pictur' o' ye, Mary: Diana is more like your father."
I thought them so similar I could not tell where the old servant (for such I now concluded her to be) saw the difference. Both were fair complexioned and slenderly made; both possessed faces full of distinction and intelligence. One, to be sure, had hair a shade darker than the other, and there was a difference in their style of wearing it; Mary's pale brown locks were parted and braided smooth: Diana's duskier tresses covered her neck with thick curls. The clock struck ten.
"Ye'll want your supper, I am sure," observed Hannah; "and so will Mr. St. John when he comes in."
And she proceeded to prepare the meal. The ladies rose; they seemed about to withdraw to the parlour. Till this moment, I had been so intent on watching them, their appearance and conversation had excited in me so keen an interest, I had half-forgotten my own wretched position: now it recurred to me. More desolate, more desperate than ever, it seemed from contrast. And how impossible did it appear to touch the inmates of this house with concern on my behalf; to make them believe in the truth of my wants and woes — to induce them to vouchsafe a rest for my wanderings! As I groped out the door, and knocked at it hesitatingly, I felt that last idea to be a mere chimera. Hannah opened.
"What do you want?" she inquired, in a voice of surprise, as she surveyed me by the light of the candle she held.
"May I speak to your mistresses?" I said.
"You had better tell me what you have to say to them. Where do you come from?"
"I am a stranger."
"What is your business here at this hour?"
"I want a night's shelter in an out-house or anywhere, and a morsel of bread to eat."