SARA’S SPECULATIONS

The next morning the frost had set in harder than before, contrary to
all prognostications, to the great discomfiture of Jack Brownlow and of
the Dartfordshire hounds. The world was white, glassy, and sparkling,
when they all looked out upon it from the windows of the
breakfast-room–another kind of world altogether from that dim and
cloudy sphere upon which Jack and his companion had looked with hopes of
thaw and an open country. These hopes being all abandoned, the only
thing that remained to be thought of was, whether Dewsbury Mere might be
“bearing,” or when the ice would be thick enough for skaters–which were
questions in which Sara, too, took a certain interest. It was the parish
of Dewsbury in which Brownlows was situated, and of which Mr. Hardcastle
was the parish priest; and young Keppel, along with his brother Mr.
Keppel of Ridley, and all the visitors he might happen to have, and Sir
Charles Hetherton, from the other side, with any body who might be
staying in his house–not to speak of the curate and the doctor, and
Captain Stanmore, who lived in the great house in Dewsbury village, and
a number of other persons less known in the upper circles of the place,
would crowd to the Mere as soon as it was known that it might yield some
diversion, which was a scant commodity in the neighborhood. Mr. Brownlow
scarcely listened to the talk of the young people as he ate his eggs
sedately. He was not thinking of the ice for one. He was thinking of
something quite different–of what might be waiting him at his office,
and of the changes which any moment, as he said to himself, might
produce. He was not afraid, for daylight disperses many ghosts that are
terrible by night; but still his fright seemed to have opened his eyes
to all the advantages of his present position, and the vast difference
there was between John Brownlow the attorney’s children, and the two
young people from Brownlows. If that change were ever to occur, it would
make a mighty alteration. Lady Hetherton would still know Sara, no
doubt, but in how different a way! and their presence at Dewsbury then
would be of no more importance than that of Fanny Hardcastle or young
Stanmore in the village–whereas, now–This was what their father was
reflecting, not distinctly, but in a vague sort of way, as he ate his
egg. He had once been fond of the ice himself, and was not so old but
that he felt the wonted fires burn in his ashes; but the office had an
attraction for him which it had never had before, and he drove down by
himself in the dog-cart with the vigor and eagerness of a young man,
while his son got out his skates and set off to ascertain the prospects
of the Mere. In short, at that moment Mr. Brownlow rather preferred to
go off to business alone.

As for Sara, she did not allow her head to be turned by the prospect of
the new amusement; she went through her duties, as usual, with serene
propriety–and then she put all sorts of coverings on her feet and her
hands, and her person generally, and set out with a little basket to
visit her “poor people.” I can not quite tell why she chose the worst
weather to visit her poor people–perhaps it was for their sakes, to
find out their wants at the worst; perhaps for her own, to feel a little
meritorious. I do not pretend to be able to fathom Sara’s motives; but
this is undeniably what she did. When it rained torrents, she put on a
large waterproof, which covered her from head to foot, and went off with
drops of rain blown upon her fair cheeks under her hood, on the same
charitable mission. This time it was in a fur-trimmed jacket, which was
the envy of half the parish. Her father spoiled her, it was easy to see,
and gave her every thing she could desire; but her poor people liked to
see her in her expensive apparel, and admired and wondered what it might
cost, and were all the better pleased with the tea and sugar. They were
pleased that she should wear her fine things for them as well as for the
fine people she went to visit. I do not attempt to state the reason why.

When she went out at the park gates, Mrs. Swayne was the first person
who met Sara’s eyes, standing at her door. The lines of the road were
so lost in snow that it seemed an expanse of level white from the gate
of Brownlows to the door-step, cleared and showing black over the
whiteness, upon which Mrs. Swayne stood. She was a stout woman, and the
cold did not seem to affect her. She had a black gown on and a little
scarlet shawl, as if she meant to make herself unusually apparent; and
there she stood defiant as the young lady came out. Sara was courageous,
and her spirit was roused by this visible opponent. She gave herself a
little shake, and then she went straight over the road and offered
battle. “Are you not afraid of freezing up,” she said to Mrs. Swayne,
with an abruptness which might have taken away any body’s breath–“or
turning into Lot’s wife, standing there at the open door?”

Mrs. Swayne was a woman of strong nerves, and she was not frightened.
She gave a little laugh to gain time, and then she retorted briskly,
“No, miss, no more nor you in all your wraps; poor folks can stand a
deal that rich folks couldn’t bear.”

“It must be much better to be poor than to be rich, then,” said Sara,
“but I don’t believe that–your husband, for instance, is not half so
strong as–but I beg your pardon–I forgot he was ill,” she cried, with
a compunction which covered her face with crimson, “I did not mean to
say that; when one speaks without thinking, one says things one doesn’t
mean.”

“It’s a pity to speak without thinking,” said Mrs. Swayne; “If I did,
I’d say a deal of unpleasant things; but, to be sure, you’re but a bit
of a girl. My man is independent, and it don’t matter to nobody whether
he is weakly or whether he is strong.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Sara, meekly; “I am very sorry he is not
strong.”

“My man,” continued Mrs. Swayne, “is well-to-do and comfortable, and
don’t want no pity: there’s a plenty in the village to be sorry for–not
them as the ladies visit and get imposed upon. Poor folks understands
poor folks–not as I mean to say we’re poor.”

“Then, if you are not poor you can’t understand them any better than I
do,” said Sara, with returning courage. “I don’t think they like
well-to-do people like you; you are always the most hard upon them. If
we were never to get any thing we did not deserve, I wonder what would
become of us; and besides, I am sure they don’t impose upon me.”

“They’d impose upon the Apostle Paul,” said Mrs. Swayne; “and as for the
rector–not as he is much like one of the apostles; he is one as thinks
his troubles worse than other folks. It ain’t no good complaining to
him. You may come through every thing as a woman can come through; but
the parson’ll find as he’s come through more. That’s just Mr.
Hardcastle. If a poor man is left with a young family, it’s the rector
as has lost two wives; and as for children and money–though I don’t
believe for one as he ever had any money–your parsons ’as come through
so much never has–”

“You are a Dissenter, Mrs. Swayne,” said Sara, with calm superiority.

“Bred and born and brought up in the church, miss,” said Mrs. Swayne,
indignantly, “but druve to the chapel along of Swayne, and the parson
being so aggravatin’. I’m one as likes a bit of sympathy, for my part;
but it ain’t general in this world,” said the large woman, with a sigh.

Sara looked at her curiously, with her head a little on one side. She
was old enough to know that one liked a little sympathy, and to feel too
that it was not general in this world; but it seemed mighty strange to
her that such an ethereal want should exist in the bosom of Mrs. Swayne.
“Sympathy?” she said, with a curious tone of wonder and inquiry. She was
candid enough, notwithstanding a certain comic aspect which the
conversation began to take to her, to want to know what it meant.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Swayne, “just sympathy, miss. I’m one as has had my
troubles, and as don’t like to be told that they ain’t troubles at all.
The minister at the chapel is ’most as bad, for he says they’re blessins
in disguise–as if Swayne being weakly and awful worritin’ when his
rheumatism’s bad, could ever be a blessin’. And as for speaking to the
rector, you might as well speak to the Mere, and better too, for that’s
got no answer ready. When a poor body sees a clergyman, it’s their
comfort to talk a bit and to tell all as they’re going through. You can
tell Mr. Hardcastle I said it, if you please. Lord bless us! I don’t
need to go so far if it’s only to hear as other folks is worse off.
There’s old Betty at the lodge, and there’s them poor creatures next
door, and most all in the village, I’m thankful to say, is worse off nor
we are; but I would like to know what’s the good of a clergyman if he
won’t listen to you rational, and show a bit of sympathy for what you’ve
com’d through.”

Perhaps Sara’s attention had wandered during this speech, or perhaps she
was tired of the subject; at all events, looking round her with a little
impatience as she listened, her eye was caught by the little card with
“Lodgings” printed thereon which hung in Mrs. Swayne’s parlor window. It
recalled her standing grievance, and she took action accordingly at
once, as was her wont.

“What is the good of that?” she said, pointing to it suddenly. “I think
you ought to keep your parlor to sit in, you who are so well off; but,
at least, it can’t do you any good to hang it up there–nobody can see
it but people who come to us at Brownlows; and you don’t expect them to
take lodgings here.”

“Begging your pardon, miss,” said Mrs. Swayne, solemnly, “It’s been that
good to me that the lodgings is took.”

“Then why do you keep it up to aggravate people?” said Sara; “It makes
me wild always when I pass the door. Why do you keep it there?”

“Lodgers is but men,” said Mrs. Swayne, “or women, to be more
particular. I can’t never be sure as I’ll like ’em; and they’re folks as
never sees their own advantages. It might be as we didn’t suit, or they
wasn’t satisfied, or objected to Swayne a-smoking when he’s bad with the
rheumatism, which is a thing I wouldn’t put a stop to not for forty
lodgers; for it’s the only thing as keeps him from worritin’. So I
always keeps it up; it’s the safest way in the end.”

“I think it is a wretched sort of way,” cried Sara, impetuously. “I
wonder how you can confess that you have so little faith in people;
instead of trying to like them and getting friends, to be always ready
to see them go off. I couldn’t have servants in the house like that:
they might just as well go to lodge in a cotton-mill or the work-house.
There can’t be any human relations between you.”

“Relations!” said Mrs. Swayne, with a rising color. “If you think my
relations are folks as go and live in lodgings, you’re far mistaken,
miss. It’s well known as we come of comfortable families, both me and
Swayne–folks as keeps a good house over their heads. That’s our sort.
As for taking ’em in, it’s mostly for charity as I lets my lodgings–for
the sake of poor folks as wants a little fresh air. You was a different
looking-creature when you come out of that stuffy bit of a town. I’ve a
real good memory, and I don’t forget. I remember when your papa come and
bought the place off the old family; and vexed we all was–but I don’t
make no doubt as it was all for the best.”

“I don’t think the old family, as you call them, were much use to
anybody in Dewsbury,” said Sara, injudiciously, with a thrill of
indignation and offended pride.

“Maybe not, miss,” said Mrs. Swayne, meekly; “they was the old Squires,
and come natural. I don’t say no more, not to give offense; but you was
a pale little thing then, and not much wonder neither, coming out of a
house in a close street as is most fit for a mill, as you was saying. It
made a fine difference in you.”

“Our house in Masterton is the nicest house I know,” said Sara, who was
privately furious. “I always want papa to take me back in the winter.
Brownlows is very nice, but it is not so much of a house after all.”

“It was a different name then,” said Mrs. Swayne, significantly; “some
on us never can think of the new name; and I don’t think as you’d like
living in a bit of a poky town after this, if your papa was to let you
try.”

“On the contrary, I should like it excessively,” said Sara, with much
haughtiness; and then she gave Mrs. Swayne a condescending little nod,
and drew up a corner of her dress, which had drooped upon the snow. “I
hope your lodgers will be nice, and that you will take down your
ticket,” she said; “but I must go now to see my poor people.” Mrs.
Swayne was so startled by the sudden but affable majesty with which the
young lady turned away, that she almost dropped her a courtesy in her
surprise. But in fact she only dropped her handkerchief, which was as
large as a towel, and which she had a way of holding rolled up like a
ball in her hand. It was quite true that the old family had been of
little use to any body at Dewsbury; and that they were almost squalid in
their poverty and pretensions and unrespected misfortune before they
went away; and that all the little jobs in carpentry which kept Mr.
Swayne in employment had been wanting during the old _régime_; in short,
it was on Brownlows, so to speak–on the shelfs and stands, and pegs and
bits of cupboard, and countless repairs which were always wanting in the
now prosperous house–that Swayne’s Cottages had been built. This,
however, did not make his wife compunctious. She watched Sara’s active
footsteps over the snow, and saw her pretty figure disappear into the
white waste, and was glad she had given her that sting. To keep this old
family bottled up, and give the new people a little dose from time to
time of the nauseous residue, was one of her pleasures. She went in and
arranged the card more prominently in her parlor window, and felt glad
that she had put it there; and then she went and sat with her poor
neighbor next door, and railed at the impudent little thing in her furs
and velvets, whom the foolish father made such an idol of. But she made
her poor neighbor’s tea all the same, and frightened away the children,
and did the woman good, not being bad any more than most people are who
cherish a little comfortable animosity against the nearest great folks.
Mrs. Swayne, however, not being democratic, was chiefly affected by the
fact that the Masterton lawyer’s family had no right to be great folks,
which was a reasonable grievance in its way.

As for Sara, she went off through the snow, feeling hot at heart with
this little encounter, though her feet were cold with standing still.
Why had she stood still to be insulted? this was what Sara asked
herself; for, after all, Mrs. Swayne was nothing to her, and what could
it matter to Brownlows whether or not she had a bill in her window? But
yet unconsciously it led her thoughts to a consideration of her present
home–to the difference between it and her father’s house at Masterton,
to all the fairy change which, within the bounds of her own
recollection, had passed upon her life. Supposing any thing was to
happen, as things continually happened to men in business–supposing
some bank was to fail, or some railway to break down–a thing which
occurred every day–and her papa should lose all his money? Would she
really be quite content to go back to the brick house in which she was
born? Sara thought it over with a great deal of gravity. In case of such
an event happening (and, to be sure, nothing was more likely), she felt
that she would greatly prefer total ruin. Total ruin meant instant
retirement to a cottage with or without roses–with only two, or perhaps
only one, servants–where she would be obliged, with her own hands to
make little dishes for poor papa, and sew the buttons on his shirts, and
perhaps milk a very pretty little Alderney cow, and make beautiful
little pats of butter for his delectation. This Sara felt that she was
equal to. Let the bank or the railway break down to-morrow, and the
devoted daughter was ready to go forth with her beloved parent. She
smiled to herself at the thought that such a misfortune could alarm her.
What was money? she said to herself; and Sara could not but feel that it
was quite necessary to take this plan into full consideration in all its
details, for nobody could tell at what moment it might be necessary to
put it in practice. As for the house at Masterton, that was quite a
different matter, which she did not see any occasion for considering. If
papa was ruined, of course he would have to give up every thing, and the
Masterton house would be as impossible as Brownlows; and so long as he
was not ruined, of course every thing would go on as usual. Thus Sara
pursued her way cheerfully, feeling that a possible new future had
opened upon her, and that she had perceived and accepted her duty in it,
and was prepared for whatever might happen. If Mr. Brownlow returned
that very night, and said, “I am a ruined man,” Sara felt that she was
able to go up to him, and say, “Papa, you have still your children;” and
the thought was so far from depressing her that she went on very
cheerfully, and held her head high, and looked at every body she met
with a certain affability, as if she were the queen of that country.
And, to tell the truth, such people as she met were not unwilling to
acknowledge her claims. There were many who thought her the prettiest
girl in Dewsbury parish, and there could be no doubt that she was the
richest and most magnificent. If it had been known what heroic
sentiments were in her heart, no doubt it would have deepened the
general admiration; but at least she knew them herself, and that is
always a great matter. To have your mind made up as to what you must and
will do in case of a sudden and at present uncertain, but on the whole
quite possible, change of fortune, is a thing to be very thankful for.
Sara felt that, considering this suddenly revealed prospect of ruin, it
perhaps was not quite prudent to promise future bounties to her poor
pensioners; but she did it all the same, thinking that surely somehow
she could manage to get her promises fulfilled, through the means of
admiring friends or such faithful retainers as might be called forth by
the occasion–true knights, who would do any thing or every thing for
her. Thus her course of visits ended quite pleasantly to every body
concerned, and that glow of generosity and magnanimity about her heart
made her even more liberal than usual, which was very satisfactory to
the poor people. When she had turned back and was on her way home, she
encountered the carrier’s cart on its way from Masterton. It was a
covered waggon, and sometimes, though very rarely, it was used as a
means of traveling from one place in the neighborhood to another by
people who could not afford more expensive conveyances. There were two
such people in it now who attracted Sara’s attention–one an elderly
woman, tall and dark, and somewhat gaunt in her appearance; the other a
girl about Sara’s own age, with very dark brown hair cut short and lying
in rings upon her forehead like a boy’s. She had eyes as dark as her
hair, and was closely wrapped in a red cloak, and regarded by her
companion with tender and anxious looks, to which her paleness and
fragile appearance gave a ready explanation. “It ain’t the speediest way
of traveling, for I’ve a long round to make, miss, afore I gets where
they’re a-going,” said the carrier; “they’d a most done better to walk,
and so I told ’em. But I reckon the young un ain’t fit, and they’re
tired like, and it’s mortal cold.” Sara walked on remorseful after this
encounter, half ashamed of her furs, which she did not want–she whose
blood danced in her veins, and who was warm all over with health and
comfort, and happiness and pleasant thoughts. And then it occurred to
her to wonder whether, if papa were ruined, he and his devoted child
would ever have to travel in a carrier’s cart, and go round and round a
whole parish in the cold before they came to their destination. “But
then we could walk,” Sara said to herself as she went briskly up the
avenue, and saw the bright fire blinking in her own window, where her
maid was laying out her evening dress. This, after all, felt a great
deal more natural even than the cottage with the roses, and put out of
her mind all thought of a dreary journey in the carrier’s cart.

You may also like