AN ADVENTURE

Jack in the mean time was on the ice.

Dewsbury Mere was bearing, which was a wonder, considering how lately
the frost had set in; and a pretty scene it was, though as yet some of
the other magnates of the parish, as well as Sara, were absent. It was a
round bit of ornamental water, partly natural, partly artificial,
touching upon the village green at one side, and on the other side
bordered by some fine elm-trees, underneath which in summer much of the
love-making of the parish was performed. The church, with its pretty
spire, was visible through the bare branches of the plantation, which
backed the elm-trees like a little host of retainers; and on the other
side–the village side–glittering over the green in the centre of all
the lower and humbler dwellings, you could see the Stanmores’ house,
which was very tall and very red, and glistening all over with
reflections from the brass nobs on the door, and the twinkling glass of
the windows, and even from the polished holly leaves which all but
blocked up the entrance. The village people were in full possession of
the Mere without the gêne imposed by the presence of Lady Hetherton or
Mrs. Keppel. Fanny Hardcastle, who, if the great people had been there,
would have pinned herself on tremblingly to their skirts and lost the
fun, was now in the heart of it, not despising young Stanmore’s
attentions, nor feeling herself painfully above the doctor’s wife; and
thus rosy and blooming and gay, looked a very different creature from
the blue little Fanny whom old Lady Hetherton, had she been there, would
have awed into cold and propriety. And the doctor’s wife, though she was
not exactly in society, was a piquant little woman, and the curate was
stalwart, if not interesting, very muscular, and slow to commit himself
in the way of speech. Besides, there were many people of whom no account
was made in Dewsbury, who enjoyed the ice, and knew how to conduct
themselves upon it, and looked just as well as if they had been young
squires and squiresses. Jack Brownlow came into the midst of them
cordially, and thought there were many more pretty faces visible than
were to be seen in more select circles, and was not in the least
appalled by the discovery that the prettiest of all was the
corn-factor’s daughter in the village. When little Polly Huntly from the
baker’s wavered on her slide, and was near falling, it was Jack who
caught her, and his friendliness put some very silly thoughts into the
poor little girl’s head; but Jack was thinking of no such vanity. He was
as pleased to see the pretty faces about as a right-thinking young man
ought to be, but he felt that he had a great many other things to think
of for his part, and gave very sensible advice, as has been already
seen, to other young fellows of less thoroughly established principles.
Jack was not only fancy free, but in principle he was opposed to all
that sort of thing. His opinion was, that for any body less than a
young duke or more than an artisan to marry under thirty, was a kind of
social and moral suicide. I do not pretend to justify or defend his
opinions, but such were his opinions, and he made no secret of them. He
was a young fellow with a great many things to do in this world, or at
least so he thought. Though he was only a country solicitor’s son, he
had notions in his head, and there was no saying what he did not aspire
to; and to throw every thing away for the sake of a girl’s pretty face,
seemed to him a proceeding little short of idiocy. All this he had
expounded to many persons of a different way of thinking; and indeed the
only moments in which he felt inclined to cast aside his creed were when
he found it taken up and advocated by other men of the same opinion, but
probably less sense of delicacy than himself.

“Where is your father?” said Mr. Hardcastle; “he used to be as fond as
any one of the ice. Gone to business! he’ll kill himself if he goes on
going to business like this all the year round, every day.”

“Oh, no,” said Jack, “he’ll not kill himself; all the same he might have
come, and so would Sara, had we known that the Mere was bearing. I did
not think it possible there could have been such good ice to-day.”

“Not Sara,” said the rector; “this sort of thing is not the thing for
her. The village folks are all very well, and in the exercise of my
profession I see a great deal of them. But not for Sara, my dear
boy–this sort of thing is not in her way.”

“Why Fanny is here,” said Jack, opening his eyes.

“Fanny is different,” said Mr. Hardcastle; “clergywomen have got to be
friendly with their poor neighbors–but Sara, who will be an heiress–”

“Is she to be an heiress?” said Jack, with a laugh which could not but
sound a little peculiar. “I am sure I don’t mind if she is; but I think
we may let the future take care of itself. The presence of the cads
would not hurt her any more than they hurt me.”

“Don’t speak of cads,” said the rector, “to me; they are all
equal–human beings among whom I have lived and labored. Of course it is
natural that you should look on them differently. Jack, can you tell me
what it is that keeps young Keppel so long about Ridley? What interest
has he in remaining here?”

“The hounds, I suppose,” said Jack, curtly, not caring to be questioned.

“Oh, the hounds!” repeated Mr. Hardcastle, with a dubious tone. “I
suppose it must be that–and nothing particular to do in town. You were
quite right, Jack, to stick to your father’s business. A briefless
barrister is one of the most hopeless wretches in the world.”

“I don’t think you always thought so, sir,” said Jack; “but here is an
opening and I’ll see you again.” He had not come there to talk to the
parson. When he had gone flying across the Mere thinking of nothing at
all but the pleasure of the motion, and had skirted it round and round
and made figures of 8 and all the gambols common to a first outbreak, he
stopped himself at a corner where Fanny Hardcastle, whom her father had
been leading about, was standing with young Keppel looking very pretty,
with her rose cheeks and downcast eyes. Keppel had been mooning about
Sara the night before, was the thought that passed through Jack’s mind;
and what right had he to give Fanny Hardcastle occasion to cast down her
eyes? Perhaps it was purely on his friend’s account; perhaps because he
thought that girls were very hardly dealt with in never being left alone
to think of any thing but that confounded love-making; but the fact was
that he disturbed them rather ruthlessly, and stood before them,
balancing himself on his skates. “Get into this chair, Fanny, and I’ll
give you a turn of the Mere,” he said; and the downcast eyes were
immediately raised, and their fullest attention conferred upon him. All
the humble maidens of Dewsbury at that moment cast glances of envy and
yet awe at Fanny. Alice Stanmore, who was growing up, and thought
herself quite old enough to receive attention in her own person,
glowered at the rector’s daughter with horrible thoughts. The two young
gentlemen, the envied of all observers, seemed for the moment, to the
female population of the village, to have put themselves at Fanny’s
feet. Even Mrs. Brightbank, the doctor’s little clever wife, was taken
in for the moment. For the instant that energetic person balanced in her
mind the respective merits of the two candidates, and considered which
it would be best for Fanny to marry; never thinking that the whole
matter involved was half-a-dozen words of nonsense on Mr. Keppel’s part,
and on Jack Brownlow’s one turn on the ice in the skater’s chair.

For it was not until Fanny was seated, and being driven over the Mere,
that she looked back with that little smile and saucy glance, and asked
demurely, “Are you sure it is quite proper, Mr. John?”

“Not proper at all,” said Jack; “for we have nobody to take care of
us–neither I nor you. My papa is in Masterton at the office, and yours
is busy talking to the old women. But quite as proper as listening to
all the nonsense Joe Keppel may please to say.”

“I listening to his nonsense!” said Fanny, as a pause occurred in their
progress. “I don’t know why you should think so. He said nothing that
every body might not hear. And besides, I don’t listen to any body’s
nonsense, nor ever did since I was born,” added Fanny, with another
little soft glance round into her companion’s face.

“Never do,” said Jack, seizing the chair with renewed vehemence, and
rushing all round the Mere with it at a pace which took away Fanny’s
breath. When they had reached the same spot again, he came to a
standstill to recover his own, and stood leaning upon the chair in which
the girl sat, smiling and glowing with the unwonted whirl. “Just like a
pair of lovers,” the people said on the Mere, though they were far
enough from being lovers. Just at that moment the carrier’s cart came
lumbering along noisily upon the hard frosty path. It was on its way
then to the place where Sara met it on the road. Inside, under the
arched cover, were to be seen the same two faces which Sara afterward
saw–the mother’s elderly and gaunt, and full of lines and wrinkles; the
sweet face of the girl, with its red lips, and pale cheeks, and lovely
eyes. The hood of the red cloak had fallen back a little, and showed
the short, curling, almost black hair. A little light came into the
young face at the sight of all the people on the ice. As was natural,
her eyes fixed first on the group so near the edge–pretty Fanny
Hardcastle, and Jack, resting from his fatigue, leaning over her chair.
The red lips opened with an innocent smile, and the girl pointed out the
scene to her mother, whose face relaxed, too, into that momentary look
of feigned interest with which an anxious watcher rewards every exertion
or stir of reviving life. “What a pretty, pretty creature!” said Fanny
Hardcastle, generously, yet with a little passing pang of annoyance at
the interruption. Jack did not make any response. He gazed at the little
traveler, without knowing it, as if she had been a creature of another
sphere. Pretty! he did not know whether she was pretty or not. What he
thought was that he had never before seen such a face; and all the while
the wagon lumbered on, and kept going off, until the Mere and its group
of people were left behind. And Jack Brownlow got to his post again, as
if nothing had happened. He drove Fanny round and round until she grew
dizzy, and then he rushed back to the field and cut all kinds of
figures, and executed every possible gambol that skates will lend
themselves to. But, oddly enough, all the while he could not get it out
of his head how strange it must look to go through the world like that
in a carrier’s cart. It seemed a sort of new view of life to Jack
altogether, and no doubt that was why it attracted him. People who had
so little sense of the importance of time, and so great a sense of the
importance of money, as to jog along over the whole breadth of the
parish in a frosty winter afternoon, by way of saving a few
shillings–and one of them so delicate and fragile, with such a face,
such soft little rings of dark hair on the forehead, such sweet eyes,
such a soft little smile! Jack did not think he had much imagination,
yet he could not help picturing to himself how the country must look as
they passed through; all the long bare stretches of wood and the houses
here and there, and how the Mere must have flashed upon them to brighten
up the tedious panorama; and then the ring of the horses’ hoofs on the
road, and their breath steaming up into the air, and the crack of the
carrier’s whip as he walked beside them. Jack, who dashed along in his
dog-cart the quickest way, or rode his horse still faster through the
well-known lanes, could not but linger on this imagination with the most
curious sense of interest and novelty. “It must be poverty,” he said to
himself; and it was all he could do to keep the words from being spoken
out loud.

As for Fanny, I am afraid she never thought again of the poor travelers
in the carrier’s cart. When the red sunset clouds were gathering in the
sky, her father, who was very tender of her, drew her hand within his
arm, and took her home. “You have had enough of it,” he said, though she
did not think so; and when they turned their backs on the village, and
took the path toward the rectory under the bare elm-trees, which stood
like pillars of ebony in a golden palace against the setting sun, Mr.
Hardcastle added a little word of warning. “My love,” he said–for he
too, like Mr. Brownlow, thought there was nobody like his child–“you
must not put nonsense into these young fellows heads.”

“_I_ put nonsense into their heads,” cried Fanny, feeling, with a slight
thrill of self-abasement, that probably it was quite the other way.

“Not a doubt about it,” said the rector; “and so far as Jack Brownlow is
concerned, I don’t know that I should object much; but I don’t want to
lose my little girl yet awhile; I don’t know what I should do all alone
in the house.”

“Oh papa, I will _never_ leave you,” cried Fanny. She meant it, and
even, which is more, believed it for the moment. Was he not more to her
than all the young men that had ever been dreamed of? But yet it _was_
rather agreeable to Fanny to think that she was suspected of putting
nonsense into their heads. She liked the imputation, as indeed most
people do, both men and women; and she liked the position–the only
lady, with all that was most attractive in the parish at her feet; for
Sir Charles Hetherton was considered by most people as very far from
bright. And then the recollection of her rapid whirl across the ice came
over her like a warm glow of pleasant recollection as she dressed for
the evening. It would be nice to have them come in, to talk it all over
after dinner–very nice to have little parties, like the last night’s
party at Brownlows; and notwithstanding her devotion to her father,
after they had dined, and she had gone alone into the drawing-room,
Fanny could not but find it dull. There was neither girl to gossip with,
nor man into whose head it would be any satisfaction to put nonsense,
near the rectory, from whom a familiar visit might be expected; and
after the day’s amusement, the silent evening, with papa down stairs
enjoying his after-dinner doze in his chair was far from lively. But it
did not occur to Fanny to frame any conjectures upon the two travelers
who had looked momentarily out upon her from the carrier’s cart.

As for Jack Brownlow, he had a tolerably long walk before him. In summer
he would have crossed the park, which much reduced the distance, but, in
the dark and through the snow, he thought it expedient to keep the
high-road, which was a long way round. He went off very briskly, with
the straps of his skates over his shoulders, whistling occasionally, but
not from want of thought. Indeed, he had a great many things to think
of–the ice itself for one thing, and the pleasant run he had given
little Fanny, and the contemptible vacillations of that fellow Keppel
from one pretty girl to another, and the office and his work, and a
rather curious case which had lately come under his hands. All this
occupied him as he went home, while the sunset skies gradually faded. He
passed from one thing to another with an unfettered mind, and more than
once there just glanced across his thoughts a momentary wonder, where
would the carrier’s cart be now? Had it got home yet, delivered all its
parcels, and deposited its passengers? Had it called at Brownlows to
leave his cigars, which ought to have arrived a week ago? That poor
little pale face–how tired the little creature must be! and how cold!
and then the mother. He would never have thought of them again but for
that curious way of moving about, of all ways in the world, among the
parcels in the carrier’s cart.

This speculation had returned to his mind as he came in sight of the
park gates. It was quite dark by this time, but the moon was up
overhead, and the road was very visible on either side of that little
black block of Swayne’s cottages which threw a shadow across almost to
the frosted silver gates. Something, however, was going on in this bit
of shadow. A large black movable object stood in the midst of it; and
from Mrs. Swayne’s door a lively ray of red light fell across the snow.
Then by degrees Jack identified the horses, with their steaming breath,
and the wagon wheel upon which the light fell. He said “by Jove” loud
out as he stood at the gate and found out what it was. It was the very
carrier’s cart of which he had been thinking, and some mysterious
transaction was going on in the darkness which he could only guess at
vaguely. Something or somebody was being made to descend from the wagon,
which some sudden swaying of the horses made difficult. Jack took his
cigar from his lips to hear and see the better, and stood and gazed with
the vulgarest curiosity. Even the carrier’s cart was something to take
note of on the road at Brownlows. But when that sudden cry followed, he
tossed his cigar away and his skates with it, and crossed the road in
two long steps, to the peril of his equilibrium. Somehow he had divined
what was happening. He made a stride into the thick of it, and it was he
who lifted up the little figure in the red cloak which had slipped and
fallen on the snow. It was natural, for he was the only man about. The
carrier was at his horses’ heads to keep them steady; Mrs. Swayne stood
on the door steps, afraid to move lest she too should slip; and as for
the girl’s mother, she was benumbed and stupefied, and could only raise
her child up half-way from the ground, and beg somebody to help. Jack
got her up in his arms, pushed Mrs. Swayne out of his way, and carried
her in. “Is it here she is to go?” he cried over his shoulder as he took
her into the parlor, where the card hung in the window, and the fire was
burning. There was nothing in it but firelight, which cast a hue of life
upon the poor little traveler’s face. And then she had not fainted, but
blushed and gasped with pain and confusion. “Oh, thank you, that will
do,” she cried–“that will do.” And then the others fell upon her, who
had come in a procession behind, when he set her down. He was so
startled himself that he stood still, which was a thing he scarcely
would have done had he known what he was about, and looked over their
heads and gaped at her. He had put her down in a kind of easy-chair, and
there she lay, her face changing from red to pale. Pale enough it was
now, while Jack, made by his astonishment into a mere wondering, curious
boy, stood with his mouth open and watched. He was not consciously
thinking how pretty she was; he was wondering if she had hurt herself,
which was a much more sensible thought; but still, of course, he
perceived it, though he was not thinking of it. Curls are common enough,
you know, but it is not often you see those soft rings, which are so
much longer than they look; and the eyes so limpid and liquid all
through, yet strained, and pathetic, and weary–a great deal too limpid,
as any body who knew any thing about it might have known, at a glance.
She made a little movement, and gave a cry, and grew red once more, this
time with pain, and then as white as the snow. “Oh, my foot, my foot,”
she cried, in a piteous voice. The sound of words brought Jack to
himself. “I’ll wait outside, Mrs. Swayne,” he said, “and if the doctor’s
wanted I’ll fetch him; let me know.” And then he went out and had a talk
with the carrier, and waited. The carrier knew very little about his
passenger. He reckoned the young un was delicate–it was along of this
here brute swerving when he hadn’t ought to–but it couldn’t be no more
than a sprain. Such was Hobson’s opinion. Jack waited, however, a little
bewildered in his intellects, till Mrs. Swayne came out to say his
services were not needed, and that it was a sprain, and could be mended
by ordinary female remedies. Then young Mr. Brownlow got Hobson’s
lantern, and searched for his skates and flung them over his shoulders.
How queer they should have come here–how odd to think of that little
face peeping out at Mrs. Swayne’s window–how droll that he should have
been on the spot just at that moment; and yet it was neither queer nor
droll to Jack, but confused his head somehow, and gave him a strange
sort of half-commotion in the region of his heart. It is all very well
to be sensible, but yet there is certainly something in it when an
adventure like this happens, not to Keppel, or that sort of fellow, but
actually to yourself.