AT THE GATE

It was not to be expected that Sara could be long unconscious of her
humble neighbors. She, too, as well as Jack, had seen them in the
carrier’s cart; and though Jack had kept his little adventure to
himself, Sara had no reason to omit due notice of her encounter. It was
quite a new sensation to her when she saw for the first time the little
face with its dewy eyes peeping out at Mrs. Swayne’s window. And the
ticket which offended Sara’s sight had been promptly taken down, not by
Mrs. Swayne, but by her lodgers themselves. Sara’s impulse was to go
over immediately and thank them for this good office; but, on second
thoughts, she decided to wait another opportunity. They might not be
“nice,”–or they might be ladies, and require more ceremonious
treatment, notwithstanding the carrier’s wagon. The face that peeped
from Mrs. Swayne’s window might have belonged to a little princess in
disguise for any thing that could be said to the contrary. And Sara was
still of the age which believes in disguised princesses, at least in
theory. She talked about them, however, continually; putting Jack to
many hypocritical devices to conceal that he too had seen the little
stranger. Though why he should keep that fact secret, nobody, not even
himself could tell. And he had confided it to young Keppel, though he
did not think of telling the story at home. “I don’t know if you would
call her pretty, but her eyes are like two stars,” was what Jack said;
and he was more angry at Keppel’s jocular response than was at all
needful. But, as for Sara, she was far more eloquent. “She is not
pretty,” that authority said; “all girls are pretty, I suppose, in a
kind of a way–I and Fanny Hardcastle and every body–I despise that.
She’s _lovely_; one would like to take and kiss her. I don’t in the
least care whether I am speaking grammar or not; but I want to know her,
and I’ve made up my mind I’ll have her here.”

“Softly, Sara,” said Mr. Brownlow, with that indulgent look which Sara
alone called into his eyes.

“Oh yes, papa, as softly as you please; but I shall never be like her if
I were to live a hundred years. I’d like to cut all my hair off, and
wear it like that; but what’s the use, with this odious light hair?”

“I thought it was golden and Titianesque, and all sorts of fine things,”
said Jack, “besides being fashionable. I’ve heard Keppel say–”

“Don’t, please; Mr. Keppel is so stupid,” and she took in her hand a
certain curl she had, which was her favorite curl in a general way, and
looked at it with something like disgust.

“It isn’t even the right color for the fashion,” she said,
contemptuously. This was at breakfast, before the gentlemen went to
business, which was a favorite hour with all of them, when their minds
were free, and the day had not as yet produced its vexations. Mr.
Brownlow, for his part, had quite got over any symptoms of discomposure
that his children might have perceived on his face. Every thing was
going on well again. Young Powys was safely settled in the office, and
his employer already had got used to him, and nothing seemed to be
coming of it: and every day was helping on the year, the one remaining
year of uncertainty. He was very anxious, but still he was not such a
novice in life but that he could keep his anxiety to himself.

“Don’t forget to make every thing comfortable for your visitors,” was
what he said, as he drove away; and the fact was, that even Mr. Brownlow
cast a glance over at Mrs. Swayne’s windows; and that Jack brought the
mare almost on her haunches, by way of showing his skill, as she dashed
out at the gates. And poor little Pamela had limped to the window, for
she had not much to amuse her, and the passing of Mr. Brownlow’s
dog-cart was an event. “Is that the girl?” said Mr. Brownlow; “why she
is like your sister, Jack.”

“Like Sara!” Jack gasped in dismay. He was so amazed that he could say
nothing more for a full minute. “I suppose you think every thing that’s
pretty is like Sara,” he said, when he had recovered his breath.

“Well, perhaps,” said the father; “but there’s something more there–and
yet she’s not like Sara either for the matter of that.”

“Not the least bit in the world,” said Jack, decisively; at which Mr.
Brownlow only smiled, making no other reply.

Sara, of course, knew nothing of this; and notwithstanding her
admiration for the stranger, it is doubtful whether she would have been
flattered by the suggestion. She made great preparations for her
visitors. There was to be a dinner-party, and old Lady Motherwell and
her son Sir Charles were to stay for a day or two–partly because it was
too far for the old lady to drive back that night, and partly, perhaps,
for other reasons, which nobody was supposed to know any thing about. In
her own mind, however, Sara was not quite unaware of these other
reasons. The girl was so unfortunate as to be aware that she was
considered a good match in the county, and she knew very well what Sir
Charles meant when he came and mounted guard over her at county
gatherings. It was commonly reported of Sir Charles Motherwell that he
was not bright–but he was utterly opaque to Sara when he came and stood
over her and shut out other people who might have been amusing; though,
to tell the truth, Miss Brownlow was in a cynical state of mind
altogether about amusing people. She thought they were an extinct
species, like mastodons, and the other sort of brutes that lived before
the creation. Fanny Hardcastle began to unfold her dress as soon as
breakfast was over, and to look out her gloves and her shoes and all her
little ornaments, and was in a flutter all day about the dinner at
Brownlows. But as for Sara, she was not excited. By way of making up to
herself for what she might have to suffer in the evening, she went out
for a ride, a pleasure of which she had been debarred for some time by
the frost; and little Pamela came again to the window and watched–oh,
with what delight and envy and admiration!–the slender-limbed chestnut
and the pretty creature he carried, as they came down all the length of
the avenue.

“Oh, mamma, make haste–make haste! it is a prettier sight than Mr.
John,” cried the little girl at Mrs. Swayne’s window, her cheeks glowing
and her eyes shining; “what fun it is to live here and see them all
passing!” Probably she enjoyed it quite as much as Sara did. When she
had watched the pretty rider as far as that was possible, she sat down
by the window to wait till she came back–wondering where she was
going–following her as she went cantering along the sunny long
stretches of road which Pamela remembered watching from the carrier’s
cart. What a strange kind of celestial life it must be to be always
riding down stately avenues and playing golden-stringed harps, and
walking about in glorious silken robes that swept the ground! Pamela
laughed to herself at those splendid images–she enjoyed it more than
Sara did, though Sara found all these good things wonderfully pleasant
too.

“What are you laughing at?” said her mother, who was working at a table
at the other end of the room.

“What fun it is to live here!” repeated Pamela. “It is as good as a
play; don’t you like to see them all riding out and in, and the horses
prancing, and the shadows coming down the avenue?–it was the greatest
luck in the world to come here.”

“Put up your foot, my dear,” said her mother, “and don’t catch cold at
that window. I’ve seen somebody very like that young lady, but I can’t
remember where.”

“That was Miss Sara, I suppose,” said Pamela, with a little awe; and she
put up her weak foot, and kept her post till the chestnut and his
mistress came back, when the excitement was renewed; and Mrs. Preston
herself took another look, and wondered where she had seen some one like
that. Thus the life of Brownlows became entangled, as it were, in that
of the humble dwellers at their gate, before either were aware.

Lady Motherwell arrived in a very solid family coach, just as the winter
twilight set in; and undoubtedly, on this occasion at least, it was
Pamela who had the best of it. Sara awaited the old lady in the
drawing-room, ready to administer to her the indispensable cup of tea;
and Sir Charles followed his mother, a tall fellow with a mustache which
looked like a respirator. As for Lady Motherwell, she was not a pleasant
visitor to Sara; but that was for reasons which I have already stated.
In herself she was not a disagreeable old woman. She had even a certain
_esprit du corps_ which made it evident to her that thus to come in
force upon a girl who was alone, was a violent proceeding, and apt to
drive the quarry prematurely to bay. So she did her best to conciliate
the young mistress of the house, even before she had received her cup of
tea.

“Charley doesn’t take tea,” she said. “I think we’ll send him off, my
dear, to look at the stables, or something. I hate to have a man poking
about the room when I want a comfortable chat; and in this nice cozy
firelight, too, when they look like tall ghosts about a place. You may
go and have your cigar, Charley. Sara and I have a hundred things to
say.”

Sir Charles was understood to murmur through his respirator that it was
awful hard upon a fellow to be banished like this; but nevertheless,
being in excellent training, and knowing it to be for his good, he went.
Then Lady Motherwell took Sara in her arms for the second time, and gave
her a maternal kiss.

“My love, you’re looking lovely,” she said. “I’m sorry for poor Charley,
to tell the truth; but I knew you’d have enough of him to-night. Now
tell me how you are, and all about yourself. I have not seen you for an
age.”

“Oh, thank you, I’m just as well as ever,” said Sara. “Sit down in this
nice low chair, and let me give you some tea.”

“Thank you,” said Lady Motherwell. “And how is Jack and the good papa?
Jack is a gay deceiver; he is not like my boy. You should have seen him
driving the girls about the ice in that chair. I am not sure that I
think it very nice, do you know, unless it was a very old friend
or–somebody _very_ particular. I was so sorry I could not come for
you–”

“Oh, it did not matter,” said Sara; “I was there three days. I got on
very well; and then I have more things to do than most girls have. I
don’t care so very much for amusements. I have a great many things to
do.”

“Quite a little housekeeper,” said Lady Motherwell. “You girls don’t
like to have such things said to you nowadays; but I’m an old-fashioned
old woman, and I must say what I think. What a nice little wife you will
make one of these days! That used to be the highest compliment that
could be paid to us when I was your age.”

“Oh, I don’t mind it at all,” said Sara; “I suppose that is what one
must come to. It is no good worrying one’s self about it. I am rather
fond of housekeeping. Are you going to be one of the patronesses for the
Masterton ball, Lady Motherwell? Do you think one should go?”

“No, I don’t think one should go,” said the old lady, not without a very
clear recollection that she was speaking to John Brownlow the
solicitor’s daughter; “but I think a dozen may go, and you shall come
with me. I am going to make up a party–yourself and the two Keppels–”

“No,” said Sara, “I am a Masterton girl, and I ought not to go with you
grand county folks–oh no, papa must take me; but thank you very much
all the same.”

“You are an odd girl,” said Lady Motherwell. “You forget your papa is
one of the very richest of the county folks, as you call us. I think
Brownlows is the finest place within twenty miles, and you that have all
the charge of it–”

“Don’t laugh at me, please–I don’t like being laughed at. It makes me
feel like a cat,” said Sara; and she clasped her soft hands together,
and sat back in her soft velvet chair out of the firelight, and sheathed
her claws as it were; not feeling sure any moment that she might not be
tempted to make a spring upon her flattering foe.

“Well, my dear, if you want to spit and scratch, let Charley be the
victim, please,” said the old lady. “I think he would rather like it.
And I am not laughing in the least, I assure you. I think a great deal
of good housekeeping. We used to be brought up to see after every thing
when I was young; and really, you know, when you have a large
establishment, and feel that your husband looks to you for every
thing–”

“We have not all husbands, thank heaven,” said Sara, spitefully; “and I
am sure I don’t want a situation as a man’s housekeeper. It is all very
well when it’s papa.”

“You will not always think so,” said Lady Motherwell, laughing; “that is
a thing a girl always changes her mind about. Of course you will marry
some day, as every body does.”

“I don’t see,” said Sara, very decidedly, “why it should be of course.
If there was any body that papa had set his heart on, and wanted me to
marry–or any _good_ reason–of course I would do what ever was my duty.
But I don’t think papa is a likely sort of man to stake me at cards, or
get into any body’s power, or any thing of that sort.”

“Sara, you are the most frightful little cynic,” cried Lady Motherwell,
laughing; “don’t you believe that girls sometimes fall in love?”

“Oh yes, all the silly ones,” said Sara, calmly, out of her corner. She
was not saying any thing that she did not to a certain extent feel; but
there is no doubt that she had a special intention at the moment in what
she said.

Lady Motherwell had another laugh, for she was amused, and not nearly so
much alarmed for the consequences as the young speaker intended she
should be. “If all girls had such sentiments, what would become of the
world?” she said. “The world would come to an end.”

“I wish it would,” said Sara. “Why shouldn’t it come to an end? It would
be easy to make a nicer world. People are very aggravating in this one.
I am sure I don’t see why we should make ourselves unhappy about its
coming to an end. It would always be a change if it did. And some of the
poor people might have better luck. Do _you_ think it is such a very
nice world?”

“My dear, don’t be profane,” said Lady Motherwell. “I never did think
Mr. Hardcastle was very settled in his principles. I declare you
frighten me, Sara, sitting and talking in that sceptical way, in the
dark.”

“Oh, I can ring for lights,” said Sara; “but that isn’t sceptical. It’s
sceptical to go on wishing to live forever, and to make the world last
forever, as if we mightn’t have something better. At least so I think.
And as for Mr. Hardcastle, I don’t know what he has to do with it–he
never said a word on the subject to me.”

“Yes, my dear, but there is a general looseness,” said the old lady. “I
know the sort of thing. He lets you think whatever you like, and never
impresses any doctrines on you as he ought. We are not in Dewsbury
parish, you know, and I feel I ought to speak. There are such
differences in clergymen. Our vicar is very pointed, and makes you
really feel as if you knew what you believed. And that is such a
comfort, my dear. Though, to be sure, you are very young, and you don’t
feel it now.”

“No, I don’t feel it at all,” said Sara; “but, Lady Motherwell, perhaps
you would like to go to your room. I think I hear papa’s cart coming up
the avenue–will you wait and see him before you go?”

Thus the conversation came to an end, though Lady Motherwell elected to
wait, and was as gracious to Mr. Brownlow as if he had been twenty
county people. Even if Sara did not have Brownlows, as everybody
supposed, still she would be rich and bring money enough with her to do
a vast deal of good at Motherwell, where the family for a long time had
not been rich. Sir Charles’s father, old Sir Charles, had not done his
duty by the property. Instead of marrying somebody with a fortune, which
was clearly the object for which he had been brought into the world, he
had married to please a fancy of his own in a very reprehensible way.
His wife herself felt that he had failed to do his duty, though it was
for her sake; and she was naturally all the more anxious that her son
should fulfill this natural responsibility. Sir Charles was not
handsome, nor was he bright, nor even so young as he might have been;
but all this, if it made the sacrifice less, made the necessity more,
and accordingly Lady Motherwell was extremely friendly to Mr. Brownlow.
When she came down for dinner she took a sort of natural protecting
place, as if she had been Sara’s aunt, or bland, flattering,
uninterfering mother-in-law. She called the young mistress of the house
to her side, and held her hand, and patted it and caressed it. She told
Mr. Brownlow how pleased she was to see how the dear child had
developed. “You will not be allowed to keep her long,” she said, with
tender meaning; “I think if she were mine I would go and hide her up so
that nobody might see her. But one has to make up one’s mind to part
with them all the same.”

“Not sooner than one can help,” said Mr. Brownlow, looking not at Lady
Motherwell, but at his child, who was the subject of discourse. He knew
what the old lady meant as well as Sara did, and he had been in the way
of smiling at it, wondering how any body could imagine he would give his
child to a good-tempered idiot; but this night another kind of idea came
into his mind. The man was stupid, but he was a gentleman of
long-established lineage, and he could secure to Sara all the advantages
of which she had so precarious a tenure here. He could give her even a
kind of title, so far as that went, though Mr. Brownlow was not much
moved by a baronet’s title; and if any thing should happen to endanger
Brownlows, it would not matter much to Jack or himself. They could
return to the house in Masterton, and make themselves as comfortable as
life, without Sara, could be anywhere. This was the thought that was
passing through Mr. Brownlow’s mind when he said, “Not sooner than one
can help.” He was thinking for the first time that such a bestowal of
his child might not be so impossible after all.

Beside her, in the seat she had taken when she escaped from Lady
Motherwell, Sir Charles had already taken up his position. He was
talking to her through his hard little black mustache–not that he said
a great deal. He was a tall man, and she was seated in a low chair, with
the usual billows of white on the carpet all round her, so that he could
not even approach very near; and she had to look up at him and strain
her ear when he spoke, if she wanted to hear–which was a trouble Sara
did not choose to take. So she said, “What?” in her indifferent way,
playing with her fan, and secretly doing all she could to extend the
white billows round her; while he, poor man, bent forward at a right
angle till he was extremely uncomfortable, and repeated his very trivial
observations with a vain attempt to reach her ear.

“I think I am growing deaf,” said Sara; “perhaps it was that dreadful
frost–I don’t think I have ever got quite thawed yet. When I do, all
you have been saying will peal out of the trumpet like Baron Munchausen,
you know. So you didn’t go to the stables? Wasn’t that rather naughty? I
am sure it was to the stables your mamma sent you when you went away.”

“Tell you what, Miss Brownlow,” said Sir Charles, “you are making game
of me.”

“Oh, no,” said Sara; “or did you go to the gate and see such a pretty
girl in the cottage opposite? I don’t know whether you would fall in
love with her, but I have; I never saw any one look so sweet. She has
such pretty dark little curls, and yet not curls–something
prettier–and such eyes–”

“Little women with black hair are frights,” said Sir Charles–“always
thought so, and more than ever now.”

“Why more than ever now?” said Sara, with the precision of contempt; and
then she went on–“If you don’t care either for pretty horses or pretty
girls, we shan’t know how to amuse you. Perhaps you are fond of reading;
I think we have a good many nice books.”

Sir Charles said something to his mustache, which was evidently an
expletive of some kind. He was not the sort of man to swear by Jove, or
even by George, much less by any thing more tangible; but still he did
utter something in an inarticulate exclamatory way. “A man would be
difficult to please if he didn’t get plenty to amuse him here,” was how
it ended. “I’m not afraid–”

“It is very kind of you to say so,” said Sara, so very politely that Sir
Charles did not venture upon any more efforts, but stood bending down
uneasily, looking at her, and pulling at his respirator in an
embarrassed way; not that he was remarkable in this, for certainly the
moment before dinner is not favorable to animated or genial
conversation. And it was not much better at dinner. Sara had Mr. Keppel
of Ridley, the eldest brother, at her other side, who talked better than
Sir Charles did. His mother kept her eye upon them as well as that was
possible from the other end of the table, and she was rather hard upon
him afterward for the small share he had taken in the conversation. “You
should have amused her and made her talk, and drawn her out,” said the
old lady. “Oh, she talked plenty,” Sir Charles said, in a discomfited
tone; and he did not make much more of it in the evening, when young
Mrs. Keppel and her sister-in-law, and Fanny Hardcastle, all gathered in
a knot round the young mistress of the house. It was a pretty group, and
the hum of talk that issued from it attracted even the old people to
linger and listen, though doubtless their own conversation would have
been much more worth listening to. There was Sara reclining upon the
cushions of a great round ottoman, with Fanny Hardcastle by her, making
one mass of the white billows; and opposite, Mrs. Keppel, who was a
pretty little woman, lay back in a low deep round chair, and Mary
Keppel, who was a little fond of attitudes, sat on a stool, leaning her
head upon her hands, in the centre. Sometimes they talked all together,
so that you could not tell what they said; and they discussed every
thing that ought to be discussed in heaven and earth, and occasionally
something that ought not; and there was a dark fringe of men round about
them, joining in the babble. But as for Sir Charles, he knew his
_consigne_, and stood at his post, and did not attempt to talk. It was
an exercise that was seldom delightful to him; and then he was puzzled,
and could not make out whether, as he himself said, it was chaff or
serious. But he could always stand over the mistress of his affections,
and do a sentinel’s duty, and keep other people away from her. That was
a _métier_ he understood.

“Has it been a pleasant evening, Sara?” said Mr. Brownlow when the
guests had all gone, and Sir Charles had disappeared with Jack, and Lady
Motherwell had retired to think it all over and invent some way of
pushing her son on. The father and daughter were left alone in the room,
which was still very bright with lights and fire, and did not suggest
any of the tawdry ideas supposed to hang about in the air after an
entertainment is over. They were both standing by the fire, lingering
before they said good-night.

“Oh, yes,” said Sara, “if that odious man would not mount guard over me.
What have I done that he should always stand at my elbow like that, with
his hideous mustache?”

“You mean Sir Charles?” said Mr. Brownlow. “I thought girls liked that
sort of thing. He means it for a great compliment to you.”

“Then I wish he would compliment somebody else,” said Sara; “I think it
is very hard, papa. A girl lives at home with her father, and is very
happy and doesn’t want any change; but any man that pleases–any tall
creature with neither brains nor sense, nor any thing but a
mustache–thinks he has a right to come and worry her; and people think
she should be pleased. It is awfully hard. No woman ever attempts to
treat Jack like that.”

Mr. Brownlow smiled, but it was not so frankly as usual. “Are you really
quite sure about this matter?” he said. “I wish you would think it over,
my darling. He is not bright–but he’s a very good fellow in his
way–stop a little. And you know I am only Brownlow the solicitor, and
if any thing should happen to our money, all this position of ours in
the county would be lost. Now Sir Charles could give you a better
position–”

“Oh, papa! could you ever bear to hear me called Lady Motherwell?” cried
Sara–“young Lady Motherwell! I should hate myself and every body
belonging to me. But look here; I have wanted to speak to you for a long
time. If you were to lose your money, I don’t see why you should mind so
very much. _I_ should not mind. We would go away to the country, and get
a cottage somewhere, and be very comfortable. After all, money don’t
matter so much. We could walk instead of driving, which is often far
pleasanter, and do things for ourselves.”

“What do you know about my money?” said Mr. Brownlow, with a bitter
momentary pang. He thought something must have betrayed the true state
of affairs to Sara, which would be an almost incredible addition to the
calamity.

“Well, not much,” said Sara, lightly; “but I know merchants and people
are often losing money, and you have an office like a merchant. I should
not mind _that_; but I do mind never being able to turn my head even at
home in our very own house, without seeing that man with his horrid
mustache.”

“Poor Sir Charles!” said Mr. Brownlow, and the anxiety on his face
lightened a little. She could not know any thing about it. It must be
merely accidental, he thought. Then he lighted her candle for her, and
kissed her soft cheek. “You said you would marry any one I asked you to
marry,” he said, with a smile; but it was not a smile that went deep.
Strangely enough he was a little anxious about the answer, as if he had
really some plan in his mind.

“And so I should, and never would hesitate,” said Sara, promptly,
holding his hand, “but not Sir Charles, please, papa.”

This was the easy way in which the girl played on what might possibly
turn out to be the very verge of the precipice.