EWS OF FRIENDS

“But you must not set your heart upon it, my darling,” said Mrs.
Preston. “It may be or it mayn’t be–nobody can say. And you must not
get to blame the young lady if she thinks better of it. They are very
rich, and they have all the best people in the county coming and going.
And you are but my poor little girl, with no grand friends; and you
mustn’t take it to heart and be disappointed. If you were doing that,
though it’s such good air and so quiet, I’d have to take my darling
away.”

“I won’t, mamma,” said Pamela; “I’ll be good. But you say yourself that
it _may_ be–”

“Yes,” said the mother; “young creatures like that are not so
worldly-minded–at least, sometimes they’re not. She might take a fancy
to you; but you mustn’t build on it, Pamela. That’s all, my dear. We’re
humble folks, and the like of us don’t go visiting at great houses. And
even you’ve not got the education, my darling: and nothing but your
black frocks–”

“Oh, mamma, do you think I want to visit at great houses?” cried Pamela.
“I should not know what to say nor how to behave. What I should like
would be to go and see her in the mornings when nobody was there, and be
her little companion, and listen to her talking, and to see her dressed
when she was going out. I know we are poor; but she might get fond of me
for all that–”

“Yes, dear,” said Mrs. Preston, “I think she is a very nice young lady.
I wish her mamma had been living, Pamela. If there had been a good woman
that had children of her own, living at that great house, I think it
would have been a comfort to me.”

“Mamma, I can’t think why you should always be speaking like that,” said
Pamela, with a cloud on her brow.

“You would soon know why if you were as old as me,” said the mother. “I
can’t forget I’m old, and how little strength I’ve got left. And I
shouldn’t like my pet to get disappointed,” she said, rising and drawing
Pamela’s pretty head to her, as she stood behind her chair; “don’t you
build upon it, dear. And now I’m going into the kitchen for five minutes
to ask for poor Mr. Swayne.”

It was a thing she did almost every night, and Pamela was not surprised;
perhaps it was even a relief to her to have a few minutes all to herself
to think over the wonderful events of the day. To be sure, it had been
about Sara alone, and her overtures of friendship, that the mother and
daughter had been talking. But when Pamela was by herself, she
recollected, naturally, that there had been another actor on the scene.
She did not think of asking her mother, or even herself, if Mr. John was
to be depended on, or if there was any danger of disappointment in
respect to him. Indeed, Pamela was so wise that she did not, as she said
to herself, think at all about this branch of the subject; for, of
course, it was not likely she would ever make great friends with a young
gentleman. The peculiarity of the matter was that, though she was not
thinking of Mr. John, she seemed to see him standing before her, holding
the gate open, looking into her face, and saying that Motherwell was one
of the men that always turned up when they were least wanted. She was
not thinking of Jack; and was it her fault if this picture had fixed
itself on her retina, if that is the name of it? She went and sat down
on the rug before the fire, and gazed into the glow, and thought it all
over. After a while she even put her hands over her eyes, that she might
think over it the more perfectly. And it is astonishing how often this
picture came between her and her thoughts; but, thank heaven, it was
only a picture! Whatever Pamela might be thinking of, it was certainly
not of Mr. John.

Mrs. Swayne’s kitchen was by far the most cheerful place in the house.
It had a brick floor, which was as red as the hearth was white, and a
great array of shining things about the walls. There was a comfortable
cat dozing and blinking before the fire, which was reflected out of so
many glowing surfaces, copper, pewter, and tin, that the walls were hung
with a perfect gallery of cats. Mrs. Swayne herself had a wickerwork
chair at one side, which she very seldom occupied; for there was a great
multiplicity of meals in the house, and there was always something just
coming to perfection in the oven or on the fire. But opposite, in a
high-backed chair covered with blue and white checked linen, was Mr.
Swayne, who was the object of so much care, and was subject to the
rheumatics, like Betty. The difference of his rheumatics was, that they
went off and on. One day he would be well–so well as to go out and see
after his business; and the next day he would be fixed in his
easy-chair. Perhaps, on the whole, it was more aggravating than if he
had gone in steadily for a good long bout when he was at it, and saved
his wife’s time. But then that was the nature of the man. There was a
visitor in the kitchen when Mrs. Preston went in–no less a personage
than old Betty, who, with a daring disregard for her rheumatics, had
come across the road, wrapped in an old cloak, to talk over the news of
the day. It was a rash proceeding, no doubt; but yet rheumatics were
very ordinary affairs, and it was seldom–very seldom–that any thing so
exciting came in Betty’s way. Mrs. Swayne, for her part, had been very
eloquent about it before her lodger appeared.

“_I’d_ make short work with him,” she said, “if it was me. _I’d_ send
him about his business, you take my word. It ain’t me as would trust one
of ’em a step farther than I could see ’em. Coming a-raging and
a-roaring round of a house, as soon as they found out as there was a
poor little tender bit of a lamb to devour.”

“What is that you say about a bit o’ lamb, Nancy?” cried Mr. Swayne;
“that’s an awful treat, that is, at this time of the year. I reckon it’s
for the new lodgers and not for us. I’ll devour it, and welcome, my
lass, if you’ll set it afore me.”

Mrs. Swayne gave no direct answer to this question. She cast a glance of
mild despair at Betty, who answered by lifting up her hands in sympathy
and commiseration. “That’s just like the men,” said Mrs. Swayne. “Talk
o’ something to put into them, and that’s all as they care for. It’s
what a poor woman has to put up with late and early. Always a-craving
and a-craving, and you ne’er out of a mess, dinner and supper–dinner
and supper. But as I was a-saying, if it was me, he should never have
the chance of a word in her ear again.”

“It’s my opinion, Mrs. Swayne,” said Betty, unwinding her shawl a
little, “as in those sort of cases it’s mostly the mother’s fault.”

“I don’t know what you mean by the mother’s fault,” said Mrs. Swayne,
who was contradictory, and liked to take the initiative. “She never set
eyes on him, as I can tell, poor soul. And how was she to know as they
were all about in the avenue? It’s none o’ the mother’s fault; but if it
was me, now as they’ve took the first step–”

“That was all as I meant,” said Betty humbly; “now as it’s come to that,
I would take her off, as it were, this very day.”

“And a deal of good you’d do with that,” said Mrs. Swayne, with natural
indignation; “take her off! and leave my parlor empty, and have him
a-running after her from one place to another. I thought you was one as
knew better; I’d brave it out if it was me–he shouldn’t get no
advantages in my way o’ working. Husht both of you, and hold your
tongues; I never see the like of you for talk, Swayne–when here’s the
poor lady out o’ the parlor as can’t abide a noise. Better? ay, a deal
better, Mrs. Preston: if he wasn’t one as adored a good easy-chair afore
the fire–”

“And a very good place, too, this cold weather,” said Mr. Swayne with a
feeble chuckle. “Nancy, you tell the lady about the lamb.”

Mrs. Swayne and Betty once more exchanged looks of plaintive comment.
“That’s him all over,” she said; “but you’re one as understands what men
is, Mrs. Preston, and I’ve no mind to explain. I hear as Miss Sara took
awful to our young Miss, meeting of her promiscuous in the avenue. Betty
here, she says as it was wonderful; but I always thought myself as that
was how it would be.”

“Yes,” said the gratified mother; “not that I would have my Pamela build
upon it. A young lady like that might change her mind; but I don’t deny
that it would be very nice. Whatever is a pleasure to Pamela is twice a
pleasure to me.”

“And a sweet young lady as ever I set eyes on,” said Betty, seizing the
opportunity, and making Mrs. Preston one of her usual bobs.

Pamela’s mother was not a lady born; the two women, who were in their
way respectful to her, saw this with lynx eyes. She was not even rich
enough, poor soul, to have the appearance of a lady; and it would have
been a little difficult for them to have explained why they were so
civil. No doubt principally it was because they knew so little of her,
and her appearance had the semi-dignity of preoccupation–a thing very
difficult to be comprehended in that region of society which is wont to
express all its sentiments freely. She had something on her mind, and
she did not relieve herself by talking, and she lived in the parlor,
while Mrs. Swayne contented herself with the kitchen. That was about the
extent of her claim on their respect.

“I suppose you are all very fond of Miss Sara, knowing her all her
life,” Mrs. Preston said, after she had received very graciously Betty’s
tribute to her own child. Though she warned Pamela against building on
it, it would be hard to describe the fairy structures which had already
sprung in her own mind on these slight foundations; and though she would
not have breathed his name for worlds, it is possible that Pamela’s
mother, in her visions, found a place for Mr. John too.

“Fond! I don’t know as we’re so fond of her neither,” said Mrs. Swayne.
“She’s well, and well enough, but I can’t say as she’s my sort. She’s
too kind of familiar like–and it ain’t like a real county lady neither.
But it’s Betty as sees her most. And awful good they are, I will say
that for them, to every creature about the place.”

“Ah, mum, they ain’t the real old gentry,” said Betty, with a touch of
pathos. “If I was one as had come with ’em, or that–but I’m real old
Dewsbury, me, and was at the Hall, coming and going, for twenty years
afore their time. I ain’t got nothing to say again’ Miss Sara. She comed
there, that’s all–she wasn’t _born_. It makes a difference when folks
have been forty years and more about a place. To see them pass away as
has the right,” said Betty growing sentimental, “and them come in as has
only a bag o’ money!”

“Little enough money the old Squire had,” said Mrs. Swayne, turning her
head, “nor manners neither. Don’t you be ungrateful, Betty Caley. You
was as poor as a church-mouse all along o’ your old Squires, and got as
fat as fat when the new folks come and put you all comfortable. Deny it,
if you can. I would worship the very ground Miss Sara sets foot on, if I
was you.”

“Ah, she ain’t the real old gentry,” said Betty, with a sigh.

Perhaps Mrs. Preston had a weakness for real old gentry too, and she had
a dull life, poor woman, and was glad of a little gossip. She had heard
the story before, but she asked to hear it again, hoping for a little
amusement; for a woman, however bowed down to the level of her fortune,
gets tired sometimes, even of such a resource as needlework. She would
not sit down, for she felt that might be considered lowering herself to
their level. But she stood with her hand upon the back of an old high
wooden chair, and asked questions. If they were not the real old gentry,
and were such upstarts, why was it that the place was called by their
name, and how did they come there?

“Some say as it was a poor old creature in Masterton as give him the
money,” said Mrs. Swayne, “away from her own child as was gone off
a-soldiering. I wouldn’t say it was money that would thrive. He was
called to make the will for her, or something; an old miser, that was
what she was; and with that he bought the place. And the folks laughed
and said it was Brownlow’s. But he ain’t a man to laugh at, ain’t Mr.
Brownlow hisself. A body may have their opinion about the young folks.
Young folks ain’t nothing much to build upon, as you was a-saying, Mrs.
Preston, at their best; but I wouldn’t be the one as would cross him
hisself. He’s terrible deep, and terrible close, like all them lawyers.
And he has a way of talking as is dreadful deceiving. Them as tries to
fight honest and open with the likes of him hasn’t no chance. He ain’t a
hard neighbor, like, nor unkind to poor folk; but I wouldn’t go again’
him, not for all the world, if it was me.”

“That’s all you know, you women,” said Mr. Swayne; “he’s the
easiest-minded gentleman going, is Mr. Brownlow. He’s one as pays your
little bits o’ bills like a prince, and don’t ask no bothering
questions–what’s this for, and what’s that for, and all them
niggle-naggles. He’s as free with his money–What are you two women
a-shaking of your heads off for, as if I was a-saying what isn’t true?”

“It’s true, and it ain’t true,” said Mrs. Swayne; “and if you ever was
any way in trouble along of the young folks, Mrs. Preston, or had him to
do with, I give you my warning you’ll have to mind.”

“I shall never have any thing to do with Mr. Brownlow,” said the lodger,
with a half-frightened smile. “I’m independent. He can’t have any thing
to say to me.”

Mrs. Swayne shook her head, and so did Betty, following her lead. The
landlady did not very well know why, and neither did the old woman. It
was always a practicable way of holding up the beacon before the eyes of
Pamela’s mother. And that poor soul, who was not very courageous, grew
frightened, she could not tell why.

“But there was something to-day as made me laugh,” said old Betty–“not
as I was in spirits for laughing–what with my back, as was like to
split, and my bad knee, and them noises in my ears. But just to see how
folks forget! Miss Sara she came in. She was along of your young miss,
mum, and a-making a fuss over her; and she says, ‘Betty,’ says she, ‘we
ain’t a-going to let you open the gate, and your rheumatics so bad; send
for one of them grandchildren o’ yours.’ Atween oursels, I was just
a-thinking o’ that; for what’s enough for one is enough for two, and
it’s allays a saving for Polly. My Polly has seven on ’em, mum, and hard
work a-keeping all straight. So I up and says, ‘A poor man’s childer is
his fortin’, Miss,’ says I; ‘they’re all on ’em a-working at summat, and
I can’t have ’em without paying.’ And no more I oughtn’t to, serving
rich folks. ‘What! not for their grandmother?’ says she. ‘If I had a
nice old grandmother like you–’”

“Law!” said Mrs. Swayne, “and her own grandmother living in a poky bit
of a place in Masterton, as every body knows–never brought out here for
a breath of fresh air, nor none of them going a-nigh of her! To think
how little folks is sensible when it’s themselves as is to blame!”

“That’s what it is,” said the triumphant Betty. “When she said that, it
was her conscience as spoke. She went as red as red, and stopped there
and then. It was along of old Mrs. Fennell, poor old soul! Why ain’t she
a-living out here, and her own flesh and blood to make her comfortable?
It was on my lips to say, Law! Miss, there’s old Mrs. Fennell is older
nor me.”

“Fennell?” said Mrs. Preston; “I ought to know that name.”

“It was her own mamma’s name,” said Betty, “and I’ve met wi’ them as
seen the old lady with their own eyes. Hobson, the carrier, he goes and
sees her regularly with game and things; but what’s game in comparison
with your own flesh and blood?”

“Perhaps the mother died young,” said Mrs. Preston with some
anxiety–“that breaks the link, like. Fennell? I wonder what Fennells
she belongs to. I once knew that name well. I wish the old lady was
living here.”

“You take my word, she’ll never live here,” said Mrs. Swayne. “She ain’t
grand enough. Old grandmothers is in the way when young folks sets up
for lords and ladies. And it ain’t that far to Masterton but you could
go and see her. There’s Hobson, he knows; he’d take you safe, never
fear.”

Mrs. Preston shrunk back a little from the suggestion. “I’m not one to
pay visits,” she said. “But I’ll say good-night to you all, now. I hope
you’ll soon be better, Mr. Swayne. And, Betty, you should not be
out-of-doors on such a cold night. My child will be dull, all by
herself.” So saying, she left them; but she did not that moment return
to Pamela. She went up stairs by herself in the dark, with her heart
beating quick in her ears. “Fennell!” she was saying to herself–“I
ought to know that name.” It was very dark on the road, and there was
nothing visible from the window but the red glow from Betty’s lodge,
where the door stood innocently open; but notwithstanding, Mrs. Preston
went and looked out, as if the scene could have thrown any enlightenment
upon her thoughts. She was excited about it, unimportant though the
matter seemed. What if perhaps she might be on the trace of
friends–people who would be good to Pamela? There was once a
Fennell–Tom Fennell–who ages ago–No doubt he was dead and gone, with
every body who had belonged to her far-off early life. But standing
there in the darkness, pressing her withered cheek close to the window,
as if there was something to be seen outside, it went through the old
woman’s mind how, perhaps, if she had chosen Tom Fennell instead of the
other one, things might have been different. If any life could ever have
been real to the liver of it, surely her hard life, her many toils and
sufferings, must have been such sure fact as to leave no room for fancy.
Yet so truly, even to an unimaginative woman, was this fantastic
existence such stuff as dreams are made of, that she stopped to think
what the difference might have been if–She was nearly sixty, worn even
beyond her years, incapable of very much thinking; and yet she took a
moment to herself ere she could join her child, and permitted herself
this strange indulgence. When she descended the stairs again, still in
the dark, going softly, and with a certain thrill of excitement, Mrs.
Preston’s mind was full of dreams more unreal than those which Pamela
pondered before the fire. She was forming visions of a sweet, kind, fair
old lady who would be good to Pamela. Already her heart was lighter for
the thought. If she should be ill or feel any signs of breaking up, what
a comfort to mount into the carrier’s cart and go and commend her child
to such a protector! If she had conceived at once the plan of marrying
Pamela to Mr. John, and making her at one sweep mistress of Brownlows,
the idea would have been wisdom itself in comparison; but she did not
know that, poor soul! She came down with a visionary glow about her
heart, the secret of which she told to no one, and roused up Pamela, who
looked half dazed and dazzled as she drew her hands from before her face
and rose from the rug she had been seated on. Pamela had been dreaming,
but not more than her mother. She almost looked as if she had been
sleeping as she opened her dazzled eyes. There are times when one sees
clearer with one’s eyes closed. The child had been looking at that
picture of hers so long that she felt guilty when her mother woke her
up. She had a kind of shamefaced consciousness, Mr. John having been so
long about, that her mother must find his presence out–not knowing that
her mother was preoccupied and full of her own imaginations too. But
they did not say any thing to each other about their dreams. They
dropped into silence, each over her work, as people are so ready to do
who have something to think of. Pamela’s little field of imagination was
limited, and did not carry her much beyond the encounters of to-day; but
Mrs. Preston bent her head over her sewing with many an old scene coming
up in her mind. She remembered the day when Tom Fennell “spoke” to her
first, as vividly in all its particulars as Pamela recollected Jack
Brownlow’s looks as he stood at the door. How strange if it should be
the same Fennells! if Pamela’s new friends should be related to her old
one–if this lady at Masterton should be the woman in all the world
pointed out by Providence to succor her darling. Poor Mrs. Preston
uttered praises to Providence unawares–she seemed to see the blessed
yet crooked ways by which she had been drawn to such a discovery. Her
heart accepted it as a plan long ago concerted in heaven for her help
when she was most helpless, to surprise her, as it were, with the
infinite thought taken for her, and tender kindness. These were the
feelings that rose and swelled in her mind and went on from step to step
of farther certainty. One thing was very confusing, it is true; but
still when a woman is in such a state of mind, she can swallow a good
many confusing particulars. It was to make out what could be the special
relationship (taking it for granted that there was a relationship)
between Tom Fennell and this old lady. She could not well have been his
mother; perhaps his wife–his widow! This was scarcely a palatable
thought, but still she swallowed it–swallowed it, and preferred to
think of something else, and permitted the matter to fall back into its
former uncertainty. What did it matter about particulars when Providence
had been so good to her? Dying itself would be little if she could but
make sure of friends for Pamela. She sang, as it were, a “Nunc dimittis”
in her soul.

Thus the acquaintance began between the young people at the great house
and little Pamela in Mrs. Swayne’s cottage. It was not an acquaintance
which was likely to arise in the ordinary course of affairs, and
naturally it called forth a little comment. Probably, had the mother
been living, as Mrs. Preston wished, Sara would never have formed so
unequal a friendship; but it was immaterial to Mr. Brownlow, who heard
his child talk of her companion, and was pleased to think she was
pleased: prepossessed as he was by the pretty face at the window which
so often gleamed out upon him, he himself, though he scarcely saw any
more of her than that passing glimpse in the morning, was taken with a
certain fondness for the lovely little girl. He no longer said she was
like Sara; she was like a face he had seen somewhere, he said, and he
never failed to look out for her, and after a while gave her a friendly
nod as he passed. It was more difficult to find out what were Jack’s
sentiments. He too saw a great deal of the little stranger, but it was
in, of course, an accidental way. He used to happen to be in the avenue
when she was coming or going. He happened to be in the park now and then
when the spring brightened, and Pamela was able to take long walks.
These things of course were pure accident, and he made no particular
mention of them. As for Pamela herself, she would say, “I met Mr. John,”
in her innocent way, but that was about all. It is true that Mrs. Swayne
in the cottage and Betty at the lodge both kept very close watch on the
young people’s proceedings. If these two had met at the other end of the
parish, Betty, notwithstanding her rheumatics, would have managed to
know it. But the only one who was aware of this scrutiny was Jack. Thus
the spring came on, and the days grew pleasant. It was pleasant for them
all, as the buds opened and the great chestnut-blossoms began to rise in
milky spires among the big half folded leaves. Even Mrs. Preston opened
and smoothed out, and took to white caps and collars, and felt as if she
might live till Pamela was five-and-twenty. Five-and-twenty is not a
great age, but it is less helpless than seventeen, and in a last
extremity there was always Mrs. Fennell in Masterton who could be
appealed to. Sometimes even the two homely sentinels who watched over
Pamela would relax in those lingering spring nights. Old Betty, though
she was worldly-minded, was yet a motherly kind of old woman; her heart
smote her when she looked in Pamela’s face. “And why shouldn’t he be
honest and true, and marry a pretty lass if it was his fancy?” Betty
would say. But as for Mrs. Swayne, she thanked Providence she had been
in temptation herself, and knew what that sort meant; which was much
more than any of the others did, up to this moment–Jack, probably,
least of all.