Martha went back to her rocking-chair and knitting, while Stephen reached down from a shelf an old Bible, covered with green baize, and, having carefully looked that his hard hands were quite clean, he opened it with the greatest reverence. James Fern had only begun to teach the boy to read a few months before, when he felt the first fatal symptoms of his illness; and Stephen, with his few opportunities for learning, had only mastered one chapter, the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, which his father had chosen for him to begin with. The sick man lay still with closed eyes, but listening attentively to every word, and correcting his son whenever he made any mistake. When it was finished, James Fern read a few verses aloud himself, with low voice and frequent pauses to regain his strength; and very soon afterwards the whole family were in a deep sleep, except himself.
Stephen’s first Victory.
James Fern did not live many more days, and he was buried the Sunday following his death. All the colliers and pitmen from Botfield walked with the funeral of their old comrade and made a great burial of it. The parish church was two miles on the other side of Botfield, and four miles from Fern’s Hollow; so James Fern and his family had never, as he called it, ‘troubled’ the church with their attendance. All the household, even to little Nan, went with their father’s corpse, to bury it in the strange and distant churchyard. Stephen felt as if he was in some long and painful dream, as he sat in the cart, with his feet resting upon his father’s coffin, with his grandfather on a chair at the head, nodding and laughing at every jolt on the rough road, and Martha holding a handkerchief up to her face, and carrying a large umbrella over herself and little Nan, to keep the dust off their new black bonnets. The boy, grave as he was, could hardly think; he felt in too great a maze for that. The church, too, which he had never entered before, seemed grand and cold and immense, with its lofty arches, and a roof so high that it made him giddy to look up to it. Now and then he heard a few sentences of the burial service sounding out grandly in the clergyman’s strange, deep voice; but they were not words he was familiar with, and he could not understand their meaning. At the open grave only, the clergyman said ’Our Father,’ which his father had taught him during his illness; and while his tears rolled down his cheeks for the first time that day, Stephen repeated over and over again to himself, ‘Our Father! our Father!’