NEW NEIGHBORS

Perhaps one of the reasons why Jack was out of temper at this particular
moment was that Mrs. Swayne had been impertinent to him. Not that he
cared in the least for Mrs. Swayne; but naturally he took a little
interest in the–child–he supposed she was only a child–a little light
thing that felt like a feather when he carried her in out of the snow.
He _had_ carried her in, and he “took an interest” in her; and why he
should be met with impertinence when he asked how the little creature
was, was more than Jack could understand. The very morning of the day on
which he saw young Powys first, he had been answered by Mrs. Swayne
standing in front of her door, and pulling it close behind her, as if
she was afraid of thieves or something. “She’s a-going on as nicely as
could be, and there ain’t no cause for anxiety, sir,” Mrs. Swayne said,
which was not a very impertinent speech after all.

“Oh, I did not suppose there was,” said Jack. “It was only a sprain, I
suppose; but she looked such a delicate little thing. That old woman
with her was her mother, eh? What did she mean traveling with a fragile
little creature like that in the carrier’s cart?”

“I don’t know about no old woman,” said Mrs. Swayne; “the good lady as
has my front parlor is the only female as is here, and they’ve come for
quiet, Mr. John, not meaning no offense; and when you’re a bit nervish,
as I knows myself by experience, it goes to your heart every time as
there comes a knock at the door.”

“You can’t have many knocks at the door here,” said Jack; “as for me, I
only wanted to know how the little thing was.”

“Miss is a-doing nicely, sir,” Mrs. Swayne answered, with solemnity; and
this was what Jack considered a very impertinent reception of his kind
inquiries. He was amused by it, and yet it put him a little out of
temper too. “As if I could possibly mean the child any harm,” he said to
himself, with a laugh; rather, indeed, insisting on the point that she
was a child in all his thoughts on the subject; and then, as has been
seen, the sudden introduction of young Powys and Mr. Brownlow’s calm
adoption of the sentiment that it was _his_ business to decide who was
to be in the office, came a little hard upon Jack, who, after all,
notwithstanding his philosophical indifference as to his sister’s
heiress-ship, liked to be consulted about matters of business, and did
not approve of being put back into a secondary place.

Thus it was with a sense of having done her duty by her new lodgers,
that Mrs. Swayne paid her periodical visit in the afternoon to the
inmates of the parlor, where the object of Jack Brownlow’s inquiries lay
very much covered up on the little horse-hair sofa. She was still
suffering from her sprain, and was lying asleep on the narrow couch,
wrapped in all the shawls her mother possessed, and with her own pretty
red cloak thrown over the heap. It was rather a grim little apartment,
with dark-green painted walls, and coarse white curtains drawn over the
single window. But the inmates probably were used to no better, and
certainly were quite content with their quarters. The girl lay asleep
with a flush upon her cheeks, which the long eyelashes seemed to
overshadow, and her soft rings of dark hair pushed back in pretty
disorder off her soft, full, childlike forehead. She was sleeping that
grateful sleep of convalescence, in which life itself seems to come
back–a sleep deep and sound and dreamless, and quite undisturbed by the
little murmur of voices which went on over the fire. Her mother was a
tall, meagre woman, older than the mother of such a girl ought to have
been. Save that subtle, indefinable resemblance which is called family
likeness, the two did not resemble each other. The elder woman now
sitting in the horsehair easy-chair over the fire, was very tall, with
long features, and gray cheeks which had never known any roses. She had
keen black passionate eyes, looking as young and full of life as if she
had been sixteen instead of nearly sixty; and her hair was still as
black as it had been in her youth. But somehow the dead darkness of the
hair made the gray face underneath look older than if it had been
softened by the silvery tones of white that belong to the aged. She was
dressed as poor women, who have ceased to care about their appearance,
and have no natural instinct that way, so often dress, in every thing
most suited to increase her personal deficiencies. She had a little
black lace cap over her black hair, and a black gown with a rim of
grayish white round the neck, badly made, and which took away any shape
that might ever have been in her tall figure. Her hands were hard, and
red, and thin, with no sort of softening between them and the harsh
black sleeve which clasped her wrists. She was not a lady, that was
evident; and yet you would not have said she was a common woman after
you had looked into her eyes.

It was very cold, though the thaw had set in, and the snow was gone–raw
and damp with a penetrating chill, which is as bad as frost–or worse,
some people think. And the new-comer sat over the fire, leaning forward
in the high-backed horse-hair chair, and spreading out her hands to the
warmth. She had given Mrs. Swayne a general invitation to come in for a
chat in the afternoon, not knowing as yet how serious a business that
was; and was now making the best of it, interposing a few words now and
then, and yet not altogether without comfort in the companionship, the
very hum of human speech having something consolatory in it.

“If it’s been a fever, that’s a thing as will mend,” said Mrs. Swayne,
“and well over too; and a thing as you don’t have more nor once. When
it’s _here_, and there’s decline in the family–” she added, putting her
hand significantly to her breast.

“There’s no decline in my family,” said the lodger, quickly. “It was
downright sickness always. No, she’s quite strong in her chest. I’ve
always said it was a great blessing that they were all strong in their
chests.”

“And yet you have but this one left,” said Mrs. Swayne. “Dear,
dear!–when it’s decline, it comes kind of natural, and you get used to
it like. An aunt o’ mine had nine, all took one after the other, and she
got that used to it, she’d tell you how it would be as soon as e’er a
one o’ them began to droop; but when it’s them sort of masterful
sicknesses as you can’t do nothing for–Deary me! all strong in their
chests, and yet you have had so many and but this one left.”

“Ay,” said the mother, wringing her thin hands with a momentary yet
habitual action, “it’s hard when you’ve reared them so far, but you said
it was good air here?”

“Beautiful air, that’s what it is,” said Mrs. Swayne, enthusiastically;
“and when she gets a bit stronger, and the weather gets milder, and he
mends of his rheumatics, Swayne shall drive her out in his spring-cart.
It’s a fine way of seeing the country–a deal finer, _I_ think, than the
gentry in their carriages with a coachman on his box perched up afore
them. I ain’t one as holds by much doctoring. Doctors and parsons,
they’re all alike; and I don’t care if I never saw one o’ them more.”

“Isn’t there a nice clergyman?” said the lodger–“it’s a nice church,
for we saw it passing in the cart, and the child took a fancy to it. In
the country like this, it’s nice to have a nice clergyman–that’s to
say, if you’re church folks.”

“There was nothing but church folks heard tell of where I came from,”
said Mrs. Swayne, with a little heat. “Them as says I wasn’t born and
bred and confirmed in the church don’t know what they’re talking of; but
since we come here, you know, along of Swayne being a Dissenter, and the
rector a man as has no sympathy, I’ve give up. It’s the same with the
doctors. There ain’t one as I haven’t tried, exceptin’ the homepathic;
and I was turning it over in my mind as soon as Swayne had another bad
turn to send for him.”

“I hope we shan’t want any more doctors,” said the mother, once more
softly wringing her hands. “But for Pamela’s sake–”

“Is that her name?” said Mrs, Swayne; “I never knew one of that name
afore; but folks is all for new-fashioned names nowadays. The Pollys and
Betsys as used to be in my young days, I never hear tell of them now;
but the girls ain’t no nicer nor no better behaved as I can see. It’s
along o’ the story-books and things. There’s Miss Sairah as is always
a-lending books–”

“Is Miss Sairah the young lady in the great house?” asked the stranger,
looking up.

Mrs. Swayne assented with a little reluctance. “Oh! yes, sure enough;
but they ain’t the real old Squires. Not as the old Squires was much to
brag of; they was awful poor, and there never was nothing to be made out
of them, neither by honest trade-folks nor cottagers, nor nobody; but
him as has it now is nothing but a lawyer out of Masterton. He’s made it
all, I shouldn’t wonder, by cheating poor folks out of their own; but
there he is as grand as a prince, and Miss Sairah dressed up like a
little peacock, and her carriage and her riding-horse, and her school,
as if she was real old gentry. It was Mr. John as carried your girl
indoors that time when she fell; and a rare troublesome one he can be
when he gets it in his head, a-calling at my house, and knocking at the
knocker when, for any thing he could tell, Swayne might ha’ been in one
of his bad turns, or your little maid a-snatching a bit of sleep.”

“But why does he come?” said the lodger, once more looking up; “is it to
ask after Mr. Swayne?”

Mr. Swayne’s spouse gave a great many shakes of her head over this
question. “To tell you the truth,” she said, “there’s a deal of folks
thinks if Swayne hadn’t a good wife behind him as kept all straight, his
bad turns would come very different. That’s all as a woman gets for
slaving and toiling and understanding the business as well as e’er a
man. No; it was not for my husband. I haven’t got nothing to say against
Mr. John. He’s not one of the sort as leads poor girls astray and breaks
their hearts; but I wouldn’t have him about here, not too often, if I
was you. He was a-asking after your girl.”

“Pamela?” said the mother, with surprise and almost amusement in her
tone, and she looked back to the sofa where her daughter was lying with
a flush too pink and roselike for health upon her cheek. “Poor little
thing; it is too early for that–she is only a child.”

“I don’t put no faith in them being only children,” said Mrs. Swayne.
“It comes terrible soon, does that sort of thing; and a gentleman has
nice ways with him. When she’s once had one of that sort a-running after
her, a girl don’t take to an honest man as talks plain and
straightforward. That’s my opinion; and, thank Providence, I’ve been in
the way of temptation myself, and I know what it all means.”

Mrs. Swayne’s lodger did not seem at all delighted by these
commentaries. A little flush of pride or pain came over her colorless
cheek; and she kept glancing back at the sofa on which her daughter lay.
“My Pamela is a little lady, if ever there was a lady,” she said, in a
nervous undertone; but it was evidently a question she did not mean to
discuss with her landlady; and thus the conversation came to a pause.

Mrs. Swayne, however, was not easily subdued; and curiosity urged her
even beyond her wont. “I think you said as you had friends here?” she
said, making a new start.

“No, no friends. We’re alone in the world, she and I,” said the woman,
hastily. “We’ve been long away, and every body is dead that ever
belonged to us. She hasn’t a soul but me, poor dear, and I’m old. It’s
dreadful to be old and have a young child. If I was to die–but we’re
not badly off,” she continued, with a faint smile in answer to an
alarmed glance all around the room from Mrs. Swayne, “and I’m saving up
every penny for her. If I could only see her as well and rosy as she
used to be!”

“That will come in time,” said the landlady. “Don’t you be afeard. It’s
beautiful air; and what with fresh milk and new-laid eggs, she’ll come
round as fast as the grass grows. You’ll see she will–they always does
here. Miss Sairah herself was as puny a bit of a child as ever you set
eyes on, and she’s a fine tall lass with a color like a rose–I will say
that for her–now.”

“And I think you said she was about my child’s age,” said the mother,
with a certain wistful glance out of the window. “Perhaps she and my
Pamela–But of course a young lady like that has plenty of friends.
Pamela will never be tall–she’s done growing. She takes after her
father’s side, you see,” the poor woman added, with a sigh, looking
round once more to the sofa where her child lay.

“And it ain’t long, perhaps, since you lost your good gentleman?” said
Mrs. Swayne, curiosity giving a certain brevity to her speech.

“He was in the army,” said the lodger, passing by the direct question,
“and it’s a wandering sort of life. Now I’ve come back, all are gone
that ever belonged to me, or so much as knew me. It feels dreary like. I
don’t mind for myself, if I could but find some kind friends for my
child.”

“Don’t you fret,” said Mrs. Swayne, rising. “She’ll find friends, no
fear; and its ridiklus to hear you talk like an old woman, and not a
gray hair on your head–But I hear Swayne a-grumbling, Mrs. Preston.
He’s no better nor an old washerwoman, that man isn’t, for his tea.”

When the conversation ended thus, the lodger rose, partly in civility,
and stood before the fire, looking into the dark little mirror over the
mantle-shelf when her visitor was gone. It was not vanity that moved her
to look at herself. “Threescore and ten!” she was saying
softly–“threescore and ten! She’d be near thirty by then, and able to
take care of herself.” It was a sombre thought enough, but it was all
the comfort she could take. “The child” all this time had to all
appearance lain fast asleep under her wraps, with the red cloak laid
over her, a childlike, fragile creature. She began to stir at this
moment, and her mother’s face cleared as if by magic. She went up to the
little hard couch, and murmured her inquiries over it with that
indescribable voice which belongs only to doves, and mothers croodling
over their sick children. Pamela considered it the most ordinary
utterance in the world, and never found out that it was totally unlike
the usually almost harsh tones of the same voice when addressing other
people. The girl threw off her coverings with a little impatience, and
came with tottering steps to the big black easy-chair. The limpid eyes
which had struck Jack Brownlow when they gazed wistfully out of the
carrier’s cart, were almost too bright, as her color was almost too
warm, for the moment; but it was the flush of weakness and sleep, not of
fever. She too, like her mother, wore rusty black; but neither that poor
and melancholy garb, nor any other disadvantageous circumstance, could
impair the sweetness of the young tender face. It was lovely with the
sweetness of spring as are the primroses and anemones; dew, and
fragrance, and growth, and all the possibilities of expansion, were in
her lovely looks. You could not have told what she might not grow to.
Seeing her, it was possible to understand the eagerness with which the
poor old mother, verging on threescore, counted her chances of a dozen
years longer in this life. These dozen years might make all the
difference to Pamela; and Pamela was all that she had in the world.

“You have had a long sleep, my darling. I am sure you feel better,” she
said.

“I feel quite well, mamma,” said the girl; and she sat down and held out
her hands to the fire. Then the mother began to talk, and give an
account of the conversation she had been holding. She altered it a
little, it must be acknowledged. She omitted all Mrs. Swayne’s anxieties
about Jack Brownlow, and put various orthodox sentiments into her mouth
instead. When she had gone on so for some ten minutes, Pamela, who had
been making evident efforts to restrain herself, suddenly opened her red
lips with a burst of soft ringing laughter, so that the mother stopped
confused.

“I am afraid it was very naughty,” said the girl; “but I woke up, and I
did not want to disturb you, and I could not help listening. Oh, mamma,
how clever you are to make up conversation like that. When you know Mrs.
Swayne was talking of Mr. John, and was such fun! Why shouldn’t I hear
about Mr. John? Because one has been ill, is one never to have any more
fun? You don’t expect me to die now?”

“God forbid!” said the mother. “But what do you know about Mr. John?
Mrs. Swayne said nothing–”

“She said he came a-knocking at the knocker,” Pamela said, with a merry
little conscious laugh; “and you asked if he came to ask for Mr. Swayne.
I thought I should have laughed out and betrayed myself then.”

“But, my dear,” said Mrs. Preston, steadily, “why shouldn’t he have come
to ask for Mr. Swayne?”

“Yes, why indeed?” said Pamela, with another merry peal of laughter,
which made her mother’s face relax, though she was not herself very
sensible wherein the joke lay.

“Well,” she said, “if he did, or if he didn’t, it does not matter very
much to us. We know nothing about Mr. John.”

“Oh, but I do,” said Pamela; “it was he that was standing by that lady’s
chair on the ice–I saw him as plain as possible. I knew him in a minute
when he carried me in. Wasn’t it nice and kind of him? and he
knew–us;–I am sure he did. Why shouldn’t he come and ask for me? I
think it is the most natural thing in the world.”

“How could he know us?” said Mrs. Preston, wondering. “My darling, now
you are growing older you must not think so much about fun. I don’t say
it is wrong, but–For you see, you have grown quite a woman now. It
would be nice if you could know Miss Sara,” she added, melting; “but she
is a little great lady, and you are but a poor little girl–”

“I must know Miss Sara,” cried Pamela. “We shall see her every day. I
want to know them both. We shall be always seeing them any time they go
out. I wonder if she is pretty. The lady was, that was in the chair.”

“How can you see every thing like that, Pamela?” said her mother, with
mild reproof. “I don’t remember any lady in a chair.”

“But _I_’ve got a pair of eyes,” said Pamela, with a laugh. She was not
thinking that they were pretty eyes, but she certainly had a pleasant
feeling that they were clear and sharp, and saw every thing and every
body within her range of vision. “I like traveling in that cart,” she
said, after a moment, “if it were not so cold. It would be pleasant in
summer to go jogging along and see every thing–but then, to be sure, in
summer there’s no ice, and no nice bright fires shining through the
windows. But mamma, please,” the little thing added, with a doubtful
look that might be saucy or sad as occasion required, “why are you so
dreadfully anxious to find me kind friends?”

This was said with a little laugh, though her eyes were not laughing;
but when she saw the serious look her mother cast upon her, she got up
hastily and threw herself down, weak as she was, at the old woman’s
knee.

“Don’t you think if we were to live both as long as we could and then to
die both together!” cried the changeable girl, with a sudden sob. “Oh,
mamma, why didn’t you have me when you were young, when you had Florry,
that we might have lived ever so long, ever so long together? Would it
be wrong for me to die when you die? why should it be wrong? God would
know what we meant by it. He would know it wasn’t for wickedness. And it
would make your mind easy whatever should happen,” cried the child,
burying her pretty face in her mother’s lap. Thus the two desolate
creatures clung together, the old woman yearning to live, the young
creature quite ready at any word of command that might reach her to give
up her short existence. They had nobody in the world belonging to them
that they knew of, and in the course of nature their companionship could
only be so short, so short! And it was not as if God saw only the
outside like men. He would know what they meant by it; that was what
poor little Pamela thought.

But she was as lively as a little bird half an hour after, being a
creature of a variable mind. Not a magnificent little princess,
self-possessed and reflective, like Sara over the way–a little soul
full of fancies, and passions, and sudden impulses of every kind–a
kitten for fun, a heroine for any thing tragic, such as she, not feared,
but hoped, might perhaps fall in her way. And the mother, who understood
the passion, did not know very much about either the fun or the fancy,
and was puzzled by times, and even vexed when she had no need to be
vexed. Mrs. Preston was greatly perplexed even that night after this
embrace and the wild suggestion that accompanied it to see how swiftly
and fully Pamela’s light heart came back to her. She could not
comprehend such a proposal of despair; but how the despair should
suddenly flit off and leave the sweetest fair skies of delight and hope
below was more than the poor woman could understand. However, the fact
was that hope and despair were quite capable of living next door in
Pamela’s fully occupied mind, and that despair itself was but another
kind of hope when it got into those soft quarters where the air was full
of the chirping of birds and the odors of the spring. She could not
sing, to call singing, but yet she went on singing all the evening long
over her bits of work, and planned drives in Mr. Swayne’s spring-cart,
and even in the carrier’s wagon, much more joyfully than Sara ever
anticipated the use of her grays. Yet she had but one life, one worn
existence, old and shattered by much suffering, between her and utter
solitude and destitution. No wonder her mother looked at her with silent
wonder, she who could never get this woful possibility out of her mind.