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LISTEN, ye thoughtless young topers ! Listen, ye hoary-headed swill-pots, to Old Humphrey's tale of the Bald-headed Sexton.
“ See yonder maker of the dead man's bed,
The sexton, hoary-headed chronicler!
THE BALD-HEADED SEXTON.
Abel Austin was about twelve years old, when, in the season of autumn, he went on a visit to a little village in the west.
Not being accustomed to the country, every object was interesting to him. He walked across the green, and sat on the bench under the trees, where the aged people of the village, at the going down of the sun, often got together, and talked of days gone by.
He stood at the door of the blacksmith's shop, while the bellows blew up the roaring fire, and hundreds of sparkles fled in all directions from the red-hot iron as it was hammered on the anvil. He called at the cottages, talked with the labouring men, as he met them going to or returning from their work, rambled about the green fields, and lingered in the churchyard among the old tombstones.
One afternoon, he was walking from one green hillock to another in the churchyard, when he came to an old tombstone, almost covered over with moss, so much so that it cost him no little trouble to read what was written on it. A loud and mournful toll sounded from the belfry just as he had scraped away enough of the moss to be enabled to read the verse. The words were as follow :
THE BALD-HEADED SEXTON,
Didst hear the toll
Of that sad solemn bell ?
Is gone to heaven or hell."
The solemn words would hardly have been passed by at any time by Abel Austin without a pause; but the tolling of the bell made them appear more striking than they otherwise would have been. Abel stood looking at the old stone, and once more he read the inscription.
All this while the old bald-headed sexton was throwing out the earth from a grave he was digging. For a time Abel saw his hands, when he lifted them up above his head to throw out the dirt ; but presently he got so low, that the spade only could be seen, and at last the earth was thrown out without even the spade being visible. When the sexton got out of the grave, Abel went up to talk with him.
“Who is going to be buried here ?” said he.
“ A man that was old enough to be my father,” replied the sexton, as he threw a spadeful of earth over a leg bone, which had been thrown out of the grave, and then patted it down. “Pity but what he had died long ago," continued he; “ then there would have been more room for the rest of us.”
THE BALD-HEADED SEXTON.
Here again the sexton struck the edge of his spade on something embedded in the mould; it was a skull, and the unfeeling manner in which he struck it, and covered it over, showed that his employment as a gravedigger had somewhat hardened his heart. “I knows whose skull that is,” said he.“
“Many a pot o'beer has Joe Lakin and me had together; but he must have been dead these five-and-twenty years ago. He was a rare ’un at the tankard, and kept it up as well as here and there one ; but, in a drunken fit, he, some how, got down to the milldam, and there he was drowned.”
Here the bell, which had stopped for some time, most likely through the inattention of the lad in the belfry, again sounded in a solemn manner. It went to the heart of Abel Austin ; but the bald-headed gravedigger thought nothing about the matter.
“ When Joe was alive," continued the sexton, as he put his hand into the armholes of his red waistcoat to throw it over his head, for he had been working without his waistcoat and his jacket“When Joe was alive, there was jolly work with us at the Malt Shovel. Him, and I, and the blacksmith were cronies, and we had been drinking together the night that Joe got drowned. When he was almost done up, I challenged him to an
THE BALD-HEADED SEXTON.
mug, and that settled him. He got out of his way in going home, and then fell, as I said, into the mill-pool. He might have bad better luck ; but we can't live for ever.”
The lines on the tombstone, the tolling of the bell, and the opened grave, had disposed Abel to serious thought; and the profane, unfeeling conversation of the bald-headed sexton made him shudder. The careless way in which he had struck the skull of his old companion seemed to amount to cruelty, and especially when it was considered that he was, in some measure, the cause of his untimely end.
Abel Austin was so struck with the hardheartedness of the sexton, that he could not speak to him another word. He did, it is true, intend to say something, and the verse on the old tombstone was on the tip of his tongue ; but the sexton, with the shining bald head, having stuck on his hat all on one side, and thrown his blue jacket over his shoulder, walked whistling towards the belfry door, with his spade in his hand.
When Abel returned home, he had much tu say about his country visit. He talked of the great house, the neat cottages, the blacksmith's shop, the village green, the pleasant fields, and the churchyard, nor did he forget to speak of the bald-headed sexton. But it is wonderful how