A CATASTROPHE

After that day of curious abandonment and imprudence, Mr. Brownlow
returned to his natural use and wont. He could not account to himself
next day even for his want of control, for his injudiciousness. What end
could it serve to lay open his plans to Sara? He had supposed she would
take it seriously, as he had done, and, lo! she had taken it very
lightly, as something at the first glance rather amusing than otherwise.
Nothing could have so entirely disconcerted her father. His position,
his good name, his very life, seemed to hang upon it, and Sara had taken
it as a singularly piquant novelty, and nothing more. Then it was that
it had occurred to him about that softening of the brain, and the
thought had braced him up, had reawakened all his energies, and sealed
his lips, and made him himself again. He went to the office next day,
and all the following days, and took no more notice of young Powys than
if he had never tried to win his confidence, and never introduced him to
his daughter. No doubt it was a disappointment to the young man. No
doubt a good deal of the intoxication of the moment had remained in
Powys’s brain. He had remembered and dwelt upon the effect of that
passing sunbeam on Miss Brownlow’s hair and her dress, much more than he
need have done. And though he did not look at it much, the young
Canadian had hung up the Claude in his memory–the Claude with a certain
setting round it more important than its actual frame. This he had done
naturally, as a kind of inevitable consequence. And it was not to be
denied that he watched for Mr. Brownlow’s coming next morning, and
waited for some little sign of special friendship, something that should
show, on his employer’s part as well, a consciousness of special favor
extended. But no such sign came. He might have been a cabbage for all
the notice Mr. Brownlow took of him as he passed to his own office. Not
a glance, not a word, betrayed any thing different from the ordinary not
unkind but quite indifferent demeanor of the lawyer to his clerks.
Then, as was to be expected, a certain surprise and painful
enlightenment–such as every body has to encounter, more or less, who
are noticed by their social superiors–came upon the young man. It was
all a caprice, then, only momentary and entirely without consequences,
which had introduced him to Mr. Brownlow’s table and his daughter. He
belonged to a different world, and it was vain to think that the other
world would ever open to him. He was too unimportant even to be kept at
a distance. He was her father’s clerk. In Canada that would not have
mattered so much, but in this old hard long-established England– Poor
young fellow! he knew so little. The thought brought with it a gush of
indignation. He set his teeth, and it seemed to him that he was able to
face that horrible conventional system, and break a lance upon it, and
make good his entrance. He forgot his work even, and laid down his pen
and stared at Mr. John, who was younger than himself. How was he better
than himself? that was the question. Then an incipient sneer awoke in
the soul of the young backwoodsman. If there was such a difference
between the son of a country solicitor and his clerk, what must there be
between the son and the clients, all the county people who came to have
their difficulties solved? But then Mr. Brownlow was something more than
a solicitor. If these two men–the one old and full of experience, the
other young and ignorant, with only a screen of glass and a curtain
between them–could have seen into each other’s thoughts, how strange
would have been the revelation. But happily that is one refuge secured
for humanity. They were each safe, beyond even their own powers of
self-interpretation, in the recesses of their hearts.

Mr. Brownlow, by a superhuman effort not only took no notice of young
Powys, but, so far as that was possible, dismissed all thought of him
from his mind. It was a difficult thing to do, but yet he all but did
it, plunging into the Wardell case, and other cases, and feeling with a
certain relief that, after all, _he_ had not any particular symptoms of
softening of the brain. The only thing he could not do was to banish
from his own mind the consciousness of the young man’s presence. Busy as
he was, occupied to the full extent of his powers, considering intently
and with devotion fine points of law and difficult social problems, he
never for one minute actually forgot that young Powys was sitting on the
other side of the screen. He could forget any thing else without much
difficulty. Neither Sara nor Brownlows were in his mind as he labored at
his work. He thought no more of Jack’s presence in the office, though he
knew very well he was there, than of the furniture; but he could have
made a picture of the habitual attitude in which his clerk sat, of the
way he bent over his work, and the quick upward glance of his eyes. He
could not forget him. He could put out of his mind all his own
uncomfortable speculations, and even the sense that he had conducted
matters unwisely, which is a painful thought to such a man. All this he
could do, but he could not get rid of Powys’s presence. He was there a
standing menace, a standing reminder. He did not even always recall to
himself, in the midst of his labors, why it was that this young man’s
presence disturbed him, but he never could for a moment get free of the
consciousness that he was there.

At the same time he regarded him with no unfriendly feelings. It was not
hatred any more than it was love that moved him. He carried the thought
with him, as we carry about with us, as soon as they are gone, that
endless continual thought of the dead which makes our friends in the
unseen world so much closer to us than any body still living to be loved
and cherished. Mr. Brownlow carried his young enemy, who at the same
time was not his enemy, about with him, as he would have carried the
thought of a son who had died. It came to his mind when he got up in the
morning. It went side by side with him wherever he went–not a ghost,
but yet something ghostly in its perseverance and steady persistency.
When he laid down his pen, or paused to collect his thoughts for a
moment, the spectre of this youth would cross him, whatever he might be
doing. While Mr. Wrinkell was talking to him, there would suddenly glide
across Mr. Wrinkell’s substantial person the apparition of a desk and a
stool and the junior clerk. All this was very trying; but still Mr.
Brownlow wisely confined himself to this one manifestation of Powys’s
presence, and sternly silenced in his own mind all thought on the
subject. On that one unlucky day of leisure he had gone too far; in the
rebound he determined to do nothing, to say nothing–to wait.

This was perhaps as little satisfactory to Sara as it was to young
Powys. She had, there can not be a doubt, been much amused and a little
excited by her father’s extraordinary proposal. She had not taken it
solemnly indeed, but it had interested her all the same. It was true he
was only her father’s clerk, but he was young, well-looking, and he had
amused her. She felt in her soul that she could (or at least so she
thought) make an utter slave of him. All the absurdities that ever were
perpetrated by a young man in love would be possible to that young man,
or else Sara’s penetration failed her, whereas the ordinary young men of
society were incapable of absurdities. They were too much absorbed in
themselves, too conscious of the possibility of ridicule, to throw
themselves at a girl’s feet heart and soul; and the girl who was still
in the first fantastic freshness of youth despised a sensible and
self-respecting lover. She would have been pleased to have had the
mysterious Canadian produced again and again to be operated upon. He was
not _blasé_ and instructed in every thing like Jack. And as for having
to marry him, if he was the man, that was still a distant evil, and
something quite unexpected no doubt would come of it; he would turn out
a prince in disguise, or some perfectly good reason which her father was
now concealing from her, would make every thing suitable. For Sara knew
too well the important place she held in her father’s opinion to imagine
for a moment that he meant to mate her unworthily. This was how the
tenor of her thoughts was turned, and Mr. Brownlow was not insensible to
the tacit assaults that were made upon him about his _protégé_. She gave
up her judgment to him as she never had done before, with a filial
self-abandonment that would have been beautiful had there been no
_arrière pensée_ in it. “I will do as papa thinks proper. You know best,
papa,” she said, in her new-born meekness, and Mr. Brownlow understood
perfectly what she meant.

“You have turned dreadfully good all of a sudden,” said Jack. “I never
knew you so dutiful before.”

“The longer one lives, one understands one’s duties the better,” said
Sara, sententiously; and she looked at her father with a mingled
submission and malice which called forth a smile about the corners of
his mouth.

“I hope so,” said Mr. Brownlow; “though you have not made the experiment
long enough to know much about it yet.”

“There are moments which give one experience as much as years,” said
Sara, in the same lofty way, which was a speech that tempted the profane
Jack to laughter, and made Mr. Brownlow smile once more. But though he
smiled, the suggestion did not please him much. He laid his hand
caressingly on her head, and smoothed back her pretty hair as he passed
her; but he said nothing, and showed no sign of consciousness in respect
to those moments which give experience. And the smile died off his lip
almost before his hand was withdrawn from her hair. His thought as he
went away was that he had been very weak; he had betrayed himself to the
child who was still but a child, and knew no better than to play with
such rude edge-tools. And the only remedy now was to close his lips and
his heart, to tell nobody any thing, never to betray himself, whatever
might happen. It was this thought that made him look so stern as he left
Brownlows that morning–at least that made Pamela think he looked stern,
as the dog-cart came out at the gate. Pamela had come to be very learned
in their looks as they flashed past in that rapid moment in the early
sunshine. She knew, or she thought she knew, whether Mr. John and his
father were quite “friends,” or if there had been a little inevitable
family difference between them, as sometimes happened; and it came into
her little head that day that Mr. Brownlow was angry with his son,
perhaps because– She would not put the reason into words, but it filled
her mind with many reflections. Was it wrong for Mr. John to come home
early so often?–to stay at home so often the whole day?–to time his
expeditions so fortunately that they should end in stray meetings, quite
accidental, almost every day? Perhaps he ought to be in the office
helping his father instead of loitering about the avenue and elsewhere,
and finding himself continually in Pamela’s way. This she breathed to
herself inarticulately with that anxious aim at his improvement which is
generally the first sign of awakening tenderness in a girl’s heart. It
occurred to her that she would speak to him about it when she saw him
next; and then it occurred to her with a flash of half guilty joy that
he had not been in the dog cart as it dashed past, and that,
accordingly, some chance meeting was very sure to take place that day.
She meant to remonstrate with him, and put it boldly before him whether
it was his duty to stay from the office; but still she could not but
feel rather glad that he had stayed from the office that day.

As for Mr. John, he had, or supposed he had–or at least attempted to
make himself suppose that he had–something to do at home on that
particular day. His fishing-tackle had got out of order, and he had to
see to that, or there was something else of equal importance which
called his attention, and he had been in Masterton for two days in
succession. Thus his conscience was very clear. It is true that he
dawdled the morning away looking for Pamela, who was not to be found,
and was late in consequence–so late that young Keppel, whom he had
meant to join, had gone off with his rod on his shoulder to the Rectory
to lunch, and was on his way back again before Jack found his way to the
water-side. There are certain states of mind in which even dinner is an
indifferent matter to a young man; and as for luncheon, it was not
likely he would take the trouble to think of that.

“You are a nice fellow,” said Keppel, “to keep a man lounging here by
himself all the time that’s any good; and here you are now when the sun
is at its height. I don’t understand that sort of work. What have you
been about all day?”

“I have not been lunching at the Rectory,” said Jack. “Have a cigar, old
fellow? Now we are here, let’s make the best of it. I’ve been waiting
about, kicking my heels, while you’ve been having lunch with Fanny
Hardcastle. But I’ll tell you what, Keppel; I’d drop that if I were
you!”

“Drop what?” cried Mr. Keppel, guiltily.

“Dancing about after every girl who comes in your way,” said Jack. “Why,
you were making an ass of yourself only the other day at Brownlows.”

“Ah, that was out of my reach,” said Keppel, shaking his head solemnly,
and he sighed. The sigh was such that Jack (who, as is well known, was
totally impervious to sentimental weaknesses) burst into a fit of
laughter.

“I suppose you think little Fanny is not out of your reach,” he said;
“but Fanny is very wide awake, I can tell you. You haven’t got any
money; you’re neglecting your profession.”

“It is my profession that is neglecting me,” said Keppel, meekly. “Don’t
be hard upon a fellow, Jack. They say here that is you who are making an
ass of yourself. They say you are to be seen about all the lanes–”

“Who says?” said Jack; and he could not prevent a certain flush from
rising to his face. “Let every man mind his own business, and woman
too. As for you, Keppel, you would be inexcusable if you were to do any
thing ridiculous in that way. A young fellow with a good profession that
may carry him as high as he likes–as high as he cares to work for, I
mean; of course nothing was ever done without work–and you waste your
time going after every girl in the place–Fanny Hardcastle one day,
somebody else the next. You’ll come to a bad end, if you don’t mind.”

“What is a fellow to do?” said Keppel. “When I see a nice girl–I am not
a block of wood, like you–I can’t help seeing it. When a man has got
eyes in his head, what is the use of his being reasoned with by a man
who has none?”

“As good as yours any day,” said Jack, with natural indignation. “What
use do you make of your eyes? I have always said marrying early was a
mistake; but, by Jove, marrying early is better than following every
girl about like a dog. Fanny Hardcastle would no more have you than Lady
Godiva–”

“How do you know that?” said Keppel, quickly. “Besides–I–don’t–want
her to have me,” he added, with deliberation; and thereupon he occupied
himself for a long time very elaborately in lighting his cigar.

“It is all very well to tell me that,” said Jack. “You want every one of
them, till you have seen the next. But look here, Keppel; take my
advice: never look at a woman again for ten years, and then get married
off-hand, and you’ll bless me and my good counsel for all the rest of
your life.”

“Thank you,” said Keppel. “You don’t say what I’m to do with myself
during the ten years; but, Jack, good advice is admirable, only one
would like to know that one’s physician healed himself.”

“Physicians never heal themselves; it is an impossibility upon the face
of it,” said Jack, calmly. “A doctor is never such an idiot as to treat
his own case. Don’t you know that? When I want ghostly counsel, I’ll go
to–Mr. Hardcastle. I never attempt to advise myself–”

“You think he’d give Fanny to you,” said Keppel, ruefully, “all for the
sake of a little money. I hate moneyed people,–give us another
cigar;–but she wouldn’t have you, Jack. I hope I know a little better
than that.”

“So much the better,” said Jack; “nor you either, my boy, unless you
come into a fortune. Mr. Hardcastle knows better than that. Are we going
to stay here all day? I’ve got something to do up at the house.”

“What have you got to do? I’ll walk up that way with you,” said Keppel,
lifting his basket from the grass.

“Well, it is not exactly at the house,” said Jack. “The fact is, I am in
no particular hurry; I have somebody to see in the village–that is, on
the road to Ridley; let’s walk that way, if you like.”

“Inhospitable, by Jove!” said Keppel. “I believe, after all, what they
say must be true.”

“What do they say?” said Jack, coldly. “You may be sure, to start with,
that it is not true; what they say never is. Come along, there’s some
shade to be had along the river-side.”

And thus the two young men terminated the day’s fishing for which Jack
had abandoned the office. They strayed along by the river-side until he
suddenly bethought himself of business which led him in quite an
opposite direction. When this recollection occurred to his mind, Jack
took leave of his friend with the air of a man very full of occupation,
and marched away as seriously and slowly as if he had really been going
to work. He was not treating his own case. He had not even as yet begun
to take his own case into consideration. He was simply intent upon his
own way for the moment, and not disposed to brook any contradiction, or
even inquiry. No particular intention, either prudent or imprudent, made
his thoughts definite as he went on; no aims were in his mind. A certain
soft intoxication only possessed him. Somehow to Jack, as to every body
else, his own case was entirely exceptional, and not to be judged by
ordinary rules. And he neither criticised nor even inquired into his
personal symptoms. With Keppel the disease was plain, and the remedy
quite apparent; but as for himself, was he ill at all, that he should
want any physician’s care?

This question, which Jack did not consider for himself, was resolved for
him in the most unexpected way. Mr. Brownlow had gone thoughtful and
almost stern to the office, reflecting upon his unfortunate
self-betrayal–vexed and almost irritated by the way in which Sara
essayed to keep up the private understanding between them. He came back,
no doubt, relieved of the cloud on his face; but still very grave, and
considering within himself whether he could not tell his daughter that
the events of that unlucky day were to count for nothing, and that the
project he had proposed to her was given over forever. His thoughts were
still so far incomplete, that he got down at the gate in order to walk
up the avenue and carry them on at leisure. As he did so he looked
across, as he too had got a habit of doing, at Mrs. Swayne’s window–the
bright little face was not there. It was not there; but, in place of it,
the mother was standing at the door, shading her eyes from the rare
gleam of evening sun which reached the house, and looking out. Mr.
Brownlow did not know any thing about this mother, and she was not so
pleasant to look at as Pamela; yet, unawares, there passed through his
mind a speculation, what she was looking for? Was she too, perhaps, in
anxiety about her child? He felt half disposed to turn back and ask her,
but did not do it; and by the time he had found old Betty’s cottage the
incident had passed entirely from his mind. Once more the sunshine was
slanting through the avenue, throwing the long tree-shadows and the long
softly-moving figure of the wayfarer before him as he went on. He was
not thinking of Jack, or any thing connected with him, when that
startling apparition met his eyes, and brought him to a stand-still. The
sight which made him suddenly stop short was a pretty one, had it been
regarded with indifferent eyes; and, indeed, it was the merest chance,
some passing movement of a bird or flicker of a branch, that roused Mr.
Brownlow from his own thoughts and revealed that pretty picture to him.
When the little flutter, whatever it was, roused him and he raised his
eyes, he saw among the trees, at no great distance from him, a pair such
as was wont to wander over soft sod, under blue sky, and amid all the
sweet interlacements of sunshine and shade–two creatures–young,
hopeful, and happy–the little one half-timid, half-trustful, looking up
into her companion’s face; he so much taller, so much stronger, so much
bolder, looking down upon her–taking the shy hand which she still
withdrew, and yet still left to be retaken;–two creatures, unaware as
yet why they were so happy–glad to be together, to look at each other,
to touch each other–thinking no evil. Mr. Brownlow stood on the path
and looked, and his senses seemed to fail him. It was a bit out of
Arcadia, out of fairy-land, out of Paradise; and he himself once in his
life had been in Arcadia too. But in the midst of this exquisite little
poem one shrill discord of fact was what most struck the father’s
ear–was it Jack? Jack!–he who was prudence itself–too prudent, even
so far as words went, for Mr. Brownlow’s simple education and habits.
And, good heavens! the little neighbor, the little bright face at the
window which had won upon them all with its sweet friendly looks! Mr.
Brownlow was a man, and not sentimental, but yet the sight after the
first surprise gave him a pang at his heart. What did it mean? or could
it mean any thing but harm and evil? He waited, standing on the path,
clearly visible while they came softly forward absorbed in each other.
He was fixed, as it were, in a kind of silent trance of pain and
amazement. She was Sara’s little humble friend–she was the little
neighbor, whose smiles had won even his own interest–she was the child
of the worn woman at the cottage door, who stood shading her eyes and
looking out for her with that anxious look in her face. All these
thoughts filled Mr. Brownlow’s eyes with pity and even incipient
indignation. And Jack! was this the result of his premature prudence,
his character as a man of the world? His father’s heart ached as they
came on so unconsciously. At last there came a moment when that curious
perception of another eye regarding them, which awakens even sleepers,
came over the young pair. Poor little Pamela gave a start and cry, and
fell back from her companion’s side. Jack, for perhaps the first time in
his life thoroughly confounded and overwhelmed, stood stock-still,
gazing in consternation at the unthought-of spectator. Mr. Brownlow’s
conduct at this difficult conjuncture was such as some people might
blame. When he saw their consternation he did not at that very moment
step in to improve the occasion. He paused that they might recognize
him; and then he took off his hat very gravely, with a certain
compassionate respect for the woman–the little weak fool-hardy creature
who was thus playing with fate; and then he turned slowly and went on.
It was as if a thunderbolt had fallen at the feet of the foolish young
pair. Hitherto, no doubt, these meetings had been clandestine, though
they did not know it; but now all at once illumination flashed upon
both. They were ashamed to be found together, and in a moment, in the
twinkling of an eye, both of them became conscious of the shame. They
gave one glance at each other, and then looked no more. What had they
been doing all those stolen hours?–all those foolish words, all those
soft touches of the warm rosy young fingers–what did they all mean? The
shock was so great that they scarcely moved or spoke for a minute, which
felt like an age. Perhaps it was greatest to Jack, who saw evidently
before him a paternal remonstrance, against which his spirit rose, and a
gulf of wild possibilities which made him giddy. But still Pamela was
the one whom it overwhelmed the most. She grew very pale, poor child!
the tears came to her eyes. “Oh, what will he think of me?” she said,
wringing her poor little hands. “Never mind what he thinks,” said Jack;
but he could not keep out of his voice a certain tone which told the
effect which this scene had had upon him also. He walked with her to the
gate, but it was in a dutiful sort of way. And then their shame flashed
upon them doubly when Pamela saw her mother in the distance waiting for
her at the door. “Don’t come any farther,” she said, under her breath,
not daring to look at him; and thus they parted ashamed. They had not
only been seen by others; they had found themselves out.

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