Hildegarde's Neighbors by Laura E. Richards
Chapter II. Old Friends and New.
It did indeed seem that the advent of the new neighbours might make a great difference in Hildegarde Grahame's life, if, as she hoped, they were the right kind of neighbours. She was an only child. She and her mother had lived now for two years at Braeside, a lovely country place which they had come to look on as home. Hildegarde was always happy, and was unconscious of any want in her life; but her mother often longed for another daughter, or a pleasant girl in the neighbourhood, to be a companion for her dear one. True, Hildegarde had one young friend, Hugh Allen, the ward of Colonel Ferrers, their kind and eccentric neighbour; but Hugh, though a darling, was a little boy, and could not "dovetail" into a girl's life as another girl might. Perhaps Mrs. Grahame hardly realized how completely she herself filled Hildegarde's idea of a friend and companion. The daughter was enough for her; her own life seemed full and running over with joy and work; but for the child she wanted always more and more. So her hopes, as well as Hildegarde's, rose high when she heard of the pleasant-looking girls who had come to the next-door house. The house was a large, old-fashioned one; less stately than Roseholme, Colonel Ferrers' house; less home-like and comfortable, perhaps, than Braeside,-- but that might only be because it had been so long uninhabited, Hildegarde thought,--yet still pleasant enough, with its tall columns and broad piazza. The house was yellow, the columns white, and the cheerful colours were set off by the dark trees, elms and locusts, that bent over it and almost hid it from the road. A smooth stretch of lawn lay between the house and the hedge, through which Hildegarde and the Colonel had made their observations: a good lawn for tennis, Hildegarde thought. How good it would be to play tennis again! She had been longing for the time when Hugh would be big enough to learn, or when Jack Ferrers, her cousin, would come back from Germany. How surprised Jack would be when she wrote him that the yellow house was inhabited. What friends he might make of those two nice-looking boys, unless he took one of his shy fits, and would have nothing to do with them. Jack was a trying boy, though very dear.
With these things in her mind, Hildegarde was sauntering toward the Ladies' Garden, on the day after the new arrival. This was a favourite haunt of hers, and she was very apt to go there for a season of meditation, or when she wanted to find Hugh. It was a curious place,--an old, neglected, forgotten garden, with high, unclipped box hedges, overhung by whispering larches. Hildegarde had dreamed many a dream under those larches, sitting beside the little stream that plashed and fell in a tiny rocky hollow, or pacing up and down the grassy paths. For the child Hugh, too, this place had a singular fascination, and he would hang for hours over a certain still, brown pool at the foot of the garden, thinking unutterable things, occasionally making a remark to his dog, but for the most part silent. Knowing his ways, Hildegarde was the more surprised, on this occasion, to hear the sound of voices in lively conversation. Whom could the boy have picked up and brought here? He had no friend of his own age; like herself, he was a lone child; and it was with a little pang, which she almost laughed to feel, that she drew near, and softly parted the branches that hung between her and the pool. The first step was fatal, she thought, and she was apparently condemned to be a peeper and an eavesdropper for the rest of her days.
Hugh was sitting beside the pool, but not in his favourite Narcissus-like attitude. His knees were well up in front of him, his hands were clasped over them, and facing him, in precisely the same position, was a boy in blue jean overalls, with a shock of black hair, and bright, dark eyes.
"What kind of fish?" asked the black-eyed boy, with kindling look.
"Little fish with silver tails," said Hugh, "and shining eyes. They look at me, and sometimes I think they listen to what I say; but they cannot speak, you know."
"Ho! I should think not!" said Black-eyes, scornfully. "I mean what kind of fish are they, when you catch 'em,--minnows, or dace, or sticklebacks, or what? What are their names?"
"I do not know that," said Hugh. "I never thought of their names; and I don't catch them."
"Why not? Wouldn't you be let? Don't the people in the house allow fishing? I thought you said they were nice people!" and my lord showed a face of keen disgust.
"I don't want to catch them," said Hugh, quietly. "Why should I? They swim about, and I see them shine like silver and purple under the brown water. Sometimes they have crimson spots, like drops of blood, or ruby stones. Look! there is one now, a ruby-spotted one!"
"Oh, my crickey!" cried the strange boy, jumping up, and dancing from one foot to the other. "It's a trout, you idiot! Gimme a line! gimme a net, or something! Gimme--" He snatched off his cap, and made a frantic effort to catch the trout, which flipped its tail quietly at him, and withdrew under a rock.
The boy sat down, breathless, and stared at Hugh with all his eyes.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked, at length "What kind of a fellow are you, anyhow? Are you loony?"
Hugh pondered, the question being new to him.
"I--don't--know!" he announced, after sufficient thought.
There was a moment of silence, and black eyes and blue exchanged an ardent gaze. Hugh's eyes were bright, with the brightness of a blue lake, where the sunbeams strike deep into it, and transfuse the clear water with light; but the eyes of the strange boy twinkled and snapped, as when sunshine sparkles from ripple to ripple. He was the first to break the silence.
"Where do you go to school?" he asked. "How old are you? how far have you got in arithmetic? fractions? So am I! Hate 'em? so do I! Play base-ball?"
"No!" said Hugh.
"Isn't there a nine here?"
"Nine?" Hugh turned this over in his mind. "I only know of three at Roseholme. One is carved ivory, carved all over with dragons, and of course one could not play with that; and there are two cricket balls that the Colonel had when he was a boy, and he says I may play with those some day, when I know enough not to break windows. Perhaps you have learned that, if you are used to having nine balls."
The stranger stared again, with a look in which despair was dawning. "You must be loony!" he muttered. And then, aloud, "Can't you play anything? What can you do?"
"I can run," said Hugh, after another pause of reflection, "and swim, of course, and box a little, and fence."
"Fence!" said Black-eyes; his voice took a more respectful tone. "Where did you learn to fence? You're too young, aren't you?"
"I am nine!" said Hugh. "I began to learn two years ago, and I have outgrown my first foil, and the Colonel has given me a new one, almost full size."
"Who's the Colonel?"
"Colonel Ferrers, the gentleman I live with. My great-aunt is his housekeeper; and he is my dearest friend, except my Beloved and her mother and my great-aunt."
"Who is your Beloved? What makes you talk so funny?"
The black-eyed boy no longer spoke scornfully, the fencing having made a deep impression on him, but he looked more puzzled than ever.
"How do I talk?" asked Hugh, in return. "This is the way I do talk, you see. And my Beloved is Miss Grahame, and that is what you have to call her; but I call her my Beloved, because she is that; and she is the most beautiful--"
But here the young gentleman was interrupted; there was a hasty putting aside of the branches, and Hildegarde, with pink cheeks and a guilty conscience, stood before the two boys. They both jumped up at once, having good manners; but Hugh's rising was calm and leisurely, while the black-eyed lad scrambled to his feet, and darted swift looks here and there, preparing for flight.
"How do you do?" said Hildegarde, coming forward quickly and holding out her hand. "You are not going, are you? I think you must be one of our new neighbours, and we ought to make acquaintance, oughtn't we?"
The boy smiled, a little quick, frightened smile, "just the way a bird would do if it could," Hildegarde thought, and laid a small brown paw timidly in hers.
"This is my Beloved!" said Hugh, by way of introduction. "So you can see for yourself."
"And am I not to hear my neighbour's name?" asked Hildegarde.
"I am Will Merryweather," said the black-eyed boy.
"I am very glad to see you, Will. I hope you and Hugh will be friends, for it is so nice to have friends of one's own age, and Hugh has no one. You, of course, have brothers and sisters, and that is the best of all, isn't it?"
There was no resisting Hildegarde's smile; the young Merryweather wavered, smiled, smiled again, and in five minutes they were all seated together, and chatting away like old friends.
It appeared that Master Will was pleased with his new surroundings, but that the absence of a base-ball nine was a tragic thing, not lightly to be contemplated. The house was "no end;" the dwelling they had just left was entirely too small for them.
"You see," he said, "when we went to that house we weren't born at all, most of us; that is, there was only Bell and the boys. So it was big enough then, and they had rooms to themselves, and all kinds of things. But then we began to come along, and at last it got so small that the boys had to sleep in the barn, and when there was more than one visitor I had to go on the parlour sofa, and it's a beast of a sofa to sleep on,--haircloth, you know, and you slide off all night; so father thought we'd better move, and we came here."
"Is Bell your eldest sister?" asked Hildegarde, not sure how far it would be right to question this frank youth.
"Yes, that's Bell. She's no end nice and jolly; and she's in college, you know, and we have such larks when she comes home."
In college! Hildegarde's hopes fell. She knew she could not get on with college girls, though she had great respect for them. Dear me! Probably Bell would be very learned, and would despise her as an "unidead girl." Cruel Dr. Johnson, to originate that injurious epithet!
At this moment she heard a fresh, joyous voice calling,--
"Will! Willy boy! W--I--Double--L, where are you?"
"That's Bell," cried Will, starting up. "She's come after me."
"Here I am, Bell!" he shouted. "Here's a jolly place; come along! I say, may she come along?" he added, turning to Hildegarde with a conscience-stricken look. Hildegarde nodded eagerly, hoping that his request had not been heard. Just beyond the Ladies' Garden was a high board-fence which separated Braeside from the neighbouring place. At the top of this fence appeared two small but strong- looking hands, and following them, a girl's face, blue-eyed, rosy- cheeked and smiling.
"You little rascal!" cried the girl; and then she caught sight of Hildegarde. "Oh, I beg your pardon!" she cried, hastily. "I didn't know,--I was looking for my brother--"
"Oh, please come up!" cried Hildegarde, running to the fence. "Please come over! Oh, you mustn't hang by your hands that way; you'll get splinters in them. You are Miss Merryweather, and I am Hildegarde Grahame; so now we are introduced, and let me help you over, do!"
Hildegarde delivered this breathlessly, and held out both hands to help the stranger; but the latter, with a frank smile and a nod, drew herself up without more ado, perched on the top of the fence, then sprang lightly to the ground.
"Thank you so much!" she said, warmly, taking Hildegarde's outstretched hand. "Of course I didn't know I was trespassing, but I'm glad I came. And oh, what a lovely place! I didn't know there was such a place out of a book. Oh, the hedges! and the brook! and the trees! How can it be real?"
Hildegarde nodded in delight. "Yes!" she said. "That is just the way I felt when I first saw the place. It was some time before I could feel it right to come here without apologizing to the ghosts."
"Your ancestors' ghosts?" said Bell Merryweather, inquiringly. "Aren't they your own ghosts? Haven't you lived here always?"
Hildegarde explained that the place had belonged to a cousin of her mother's, who left it to her at his death.
"Oh!" said Miss Merryweather; then she considered a little, with her head on one side. Hildegarde decided that, though not a beauty, the new-comer had one of the pleasantest faces she had ever seen.
"On the whole," the girl went on, "I am rather glad that my theory was wrong. The truth is less romantic, but it makes you much more real and accessible, which is, after all, desirable in a country neighbourhood."
"Do tell me what you mean!" cried Hildegarde.
Miss Merryweather laughed.
"If you are quite sure you won't mind?" she said, tentatively. "Well, your place is so beautiful,--even apart from this--this-- bower of nymphs,--it is so shadowed with great trees, and so green with old turf, that when I saw you this morning walking under the tree, I made up a romance about you,--a pretty little romance. You are quite sure you don't mind? You were the last of an ancient family, and you were very delicate, and your mother kept you in this lovely solitude, hoping to preserve your precious life. And now," she burst into a clear peal of laughter, in which Hildegarde joined heartily, "now I see you near, and you are no more delicate than I am, and you are not the last of an ancient family. At least, I hope you are not," she cried, growing suddenly grave.
"Oh! do you like to make romances?" cried Hildegarde, with ready tact waiving the last question. "It is my delight, too. No, I am not in the least delicate, as you say, and we have only been here two years, my mother and I; yet it seems like home, and I hope we shall always live here now. And are you beginning to feel at all settled in,--I don't know any name for your house; we have called it just the 'Yellow House' as it had no special interest, being uninhabited. But I suppose you will give it a name?"
"If we can decide on one!" said Bell Merryweather, laughing. "The trouble is, there are so many of us to decide. I want to call it Gamboge: brief, you see, and simple. But one boy says it must be Chrome Castle, and another votes for Topaz Tower; so I don't know how it will end."
"When I was a little girl," said Hildegarde, "I had a book, the dearest little book, called 'Pumpkin House.' It was about--"
"Oh, did you have 'Pumpkin House?'" cried Bell Merryweather, eagerly. "Oh! wasn't it a darling? And didn't you think you never could be perfectly happy till you could live in a pumpkin? And to think of my forgetting it now, just when the opportunity has come! Of course we shall call the new home Pumpkin House!"
"Will the others like it?" asked Hildegarde,
"They'd better!" said Bell. "And they will, of course. It was only because we had not found the right name that we did not agree. Thank you so much, Miss Grahame! Oh, I must go now, for I have fifty thousand things to do! But,--I am so glad to have met you."
"And I to know you," cried Hildegarde, warmly. "I hope we shall see a great deal of each other. We shall come to call in due form, as soon as you are ready to receive visitors. But meanwhile, allow me to present you with the freedom of the fence and of the Ladies' Garden. See! our two boys are deep in confidences already."
In truth, the black head and the red one were laid close together, and the two round faces wore the same look of deep importance.
"Mine are green and white," said Will. "That is Austrian, but I have them Crusaders a good deal of the time."
"Mine are blue," said Hugh, "and sometimes they are Americans, and sometimes they are Greeks and Trojans. Will you be my friend, and shall we fight great fights together?"
"All right," said Will Merryweather, shyly.
"We will plan a campaign," cried Hugh, his eyes shining with ardour.
"Yes; but now you must come in to your music lesson," said Hildegarde, taking his hand, and frowning at herself for feeling another little pang, as Hugh's face turned toward his new acquaintance.
"Read the Talisman?" cried Will. "I'll be Saladin, and you be Richard."
"Come along, Will," said his sister, taking him by the shoulders and marching him toward the fence.
"Lots of sand that will do for Palestine!" "Plains of Marathon over beyond the stone wall!" "Turbans and lances!" "Horsetail helmets and real armour!"
Still shouting, Will was pitched bodily over the fence by his stalwart sister, while Hugh went away holding Hildegarde's hand, and looking backward as he passed.
"We will fight!" he said, giving a little leap of joy. "Our necks shall be clothed with thunder, and we shall say, 'Ha! ha!' among the trumpets. And will you bind my wounds, Beloved?" he added, looking up in Hildegarde's face. "And will you give me my shield, and tell me to come back with it or upon it? Will you do that? The cover of the washboiler will do beautifully for a shield."
"So it will!" said Hildegarde; and they went into the house together.