A CRISIS

All this time affairs had been going on very quietly in the office. Mr.
Brownlow came and went every day, and Jack when it suited him, and
business went on as usual. As for young Powys, he had turned out an
admirable clerk. Nothing could be more punctual, more painstaking than
he was. Mr. Wrinkell, the head-clerk, was so pleased, that he invited
him to tea and chapel on Sunday, which was an offer the stranger had not
despised. And it was known that he had taken a little tiny house in the
outskirts, not the Dewsbury way, but at the other side of the town–a
little house with a garden, where he had been seen planting primroses,
to the great amusement of the other clerks. They had tried jeers, but
the jeers were not witty, and Powys’s patience was found to have limits.
And he was so big and strong, and looked so completely as if he meant
it, that the merriment soon came to an end and he was allowed to take
his own way. They said he was currying favor with old Wrinkell; they
said he was trying to humbug the governor; they said he had his
pleasures his own way, and kept close about them. But all these arrows
did not touch the junior clerk. Mr. Brownlow watched the young man out
of his private office with the most anxious mixture of feelings.
Wrinkell himself, though he was of thirty years’ standing in the office,
and his employer and he had been youths together, did not occupy nearly
so much room in Mr. Brownlow’s favor as this “new fellow.” He took a
livelier interest even in the papers that had come through his
_protégé’s_ hands. “This is Powys’s work, is it?” he would say, as he
looked at the fair sheets which cost other people so much trouble. Powys
did his work very well for one thing, but that did not explain it. Mr.
Brownlow got into a way of drawing back the curtain which covered the
glass partition between his own room and the outer office. He would draw
back this curtain, accidentally as it were, the least in the world, and
cast his eyes now and then on the desk at which the young man sat. He
thought sometimes it was a pity to keep him there, a broad-shouldered,
deep-chested fellow like that, at a desk, and consulted with himself
whether he could not make some partial explanation to him, and advance
him some money and send him off to a farm in his native Canada. It would
be better for Powys, and it would be better for Brownlows. But he
had not the courage to take such a direct step. Many a thought was
in his mind as he sat glancing by turns from the side of the
curtain–compunctions and self-reproaches now and then, but chiefly, it
must be confessed, more selfish thoughts. Business went on just the
same, but yet it cannot be denied that an occasional terror seized Mr.
Wrinkell’s spirit that his principal’s mind was “beginning to go.” “And
young John never was fit to hold the candle to him,” Mr. Wrinkell said,
in those moments of privacy when he confided his cares to the wife of
his bosom. “When our Mr. Brownlow goes, the business will go, you’ll see
that. His opinion on that Waterworks case was not so clear as it used to
be–not near so clear as it used to be; he’ll sit for an hour at a time
and never put pen to paper. He is but a young man yet, for his time of
life, but I’m afraid he’s beginning to go; and when he goes, the
business will go. You’ll see young John, with his fine notions, will
never keep it up for a year.”

“Well, Thomas, never mind,” said Mrs. Wrinkell; “It’s sure to last out
our time.”

“Ah! that’s just like women,” said her husband–“after me the deluge;
but I can tell you I do mind.” He had the same opinion of women as Mrs.
Swayne had of men, and it sprung from personal superiority in both
cases, which is stronger than theory. But still he did let himself be
comforted by the feminine suggestion. “There will be peace in my time;”
this was the judgment formed by his head clerk, who knew so well of Mr.
Brownlow’s altered ways.

All this went on for some months after the admission of young Powys, and
then all at once there was a change. The change made itself apparent in
the Canadian, to begin with. At first it was only like a shadow creeping
over the young man; then by degrees the difference grew more and more
marked. He ceased to be held up as a model by the sorrowing Wrinkell; he
ceased to be an example of the punctual and accurate. His eyes began to
be red and bloodshot in the mornings; he looked weary, heavy,
languid–sick of work, and sick of every thing. Evidently he had taken
to bad ways. So all his companions in the office concluded, not without
satisfaction. Mr. Wrinkell made up his mind to it sorrowing. “I’ve seen
many go, but I thought the root of the matter was in him,” he said to
his domestic counselor. “Well, Thomas, we did our best for him,” that
sympathetic woman replied. It was not every body that Mr. Wrinkell would
have asked to chapel and tea. And this was how his kindness was to be
rewarded. As for Mr. Brownlow, when he awoke to a sense of the change,
it had a very strange effect upon him. He had a distinct impression of
pain, for he liked the lad, about whom he knew so much more than any
body else knew. And in the midst of his pain there came a guilty throb
of satisfaction, which woke him thoroughly up, and made him ask himself
sternly what this all meant. Was he glad to see the young man go wrong
because he stood in his own miserable selfish way? This was what a few
months of such a secret had brought him to. It was now April, and in
November the year would be out, and all the danger over. Once more, and
always with a deeper impatience, he longed for this moment. It seemed to
him, notwithstanding his matured and steady intellect, that if that day
had but come, if that hour were but attained, his natural freedom would
come back to him. If he had been consulted about his own case, he would
have seen through this vain supposition; but it _was_ his own case, and
he did not see through it. Meanwhile, in the interval, what was he to
do? He drew his curtain aside, and sat and watched the changed looks of
this unfortunate boy. He had begun so innocently and well, was he to be
allowed to end badly, like so many? Had not he himself, in receiving the
lad, and trading as it were on his ignorance, taken on himself something
of the responsibility? He sat thinking of this when he ought to have
been thinking of other people’s business. There was not one of all his
clients whose affairs were so complicated and engrossing as his own. He
was more perplexed and beaten about in his own mind than any of the
people who came to ask him for his advice. Oh, the sounding nothings
they would bring before him; he who was engaged in personal conflict
with the very first principles of honor and rectitude. Was he to let the
lad perish? was he to interfere? What was he to do?

At the very height of his perplexity, one of those April days, Mr.
Brownlow was very late at the office. Not exactly on account of the
confusion of mind he was in, and yet because the intrusion of this
personal subject had retarded him in his business. He was there after
all the clerks were gone–even Mr. Wrinkell. He had watched young Powys
go away from that very window where he had once watched Bessie Fennell
passing in her thin cloak. The young man went off by himself, taking the
contrary road, as Mr. Brownlow knew, from that which led to his home. He
looked ill–he looked unhappy; and his employer watched him with a
sickening at his heart. Was it his fault? and could he mend it or stop
the evil, even were he to make up his mind to try? After that he had
more than an hour’s work, and sent off the dogcart to wait for him at
the Green Man in the market-place. It was very quiet in the office when
all his people were gone. As he sat working, there came over him
memories of other times when he had worked like this, when his mother
would come stealing down to him from the rooms above; when Bessie would
come with her work to sit by him as he finished his. Strange to think
that neither Bessie nor his mother were up stairs now; strange to
believe, when you came to think of it, that there was nobody there–that
the house was vacant and his home elsewhere, and all his own generation,
his own contemporaries, cut off from his side. These ideas floated
through his mind as he worked, but they did not impair the soundness of
the work, as some other thoughts did. His mind was not beginning to go,
though Mr. Wrinkell thought so. It was even a wonder to himself how
quickly, how clearly he got through it; how fit he was for work yet,
though the world was so changed. He had finished while it was still good
daylight, and put away his papers and buttoned his coat, and set out in
an easy way. There was nothing particular to hurry him. There was Jack’s
mare, which flew rather than trotted, to take him home. Thus thinking,
he went out, drawing on his gloves. Opposite him, as he opened the door,
the sky was glowing in the west after the sunset, and he could see a
woman’s figure against it passing slowly, as if waiting for some one.
Before he could shut the door, it became evident that it was for himself
that she was waiting. Somehow he divined who she was before she said a
word. A comely, elderly, motherly woman, dressed like a farmer’s or a
shopkeeper’s wife, in the days when people dressed like their condition.
She had a large figured shawl on, and a bonnet with black ribbons. And
he knew she was Powys’s mother–the woman on earth he most dreaded, come
to speak to him about her son.

“Mr. Brownlow,” she said, coming up to him with a nervous movement of
her hands, “I’ve been waiting about this hour not to be troublesome. Oh!
could you let me speak to you ten minutes? I won’t keep you. Oh, please,
if I might speak to you five minutes _now_.”

“Surely,” he said; he was not quite sure if it was audible, but he said
it with his lips. And he went in and held the door open for her. Then,
though he never could tell why, he took her up stairs–not to the office
which he had just closed, but up to the long silent drawing-room which
he had not entered for years. There came upon his mind an impression
that Bessie was surely about somewhere, to come and stand by him, if he
could only call her. But in the first place he had to do with his guest.
He gave her a chair and made her sit down, and stood before her. “Tell
me how I can serve you,” he said. It seemed to him like a dream, and he
could not understand it. Would she tell her fatal name and make her
claim, and end it all at once? That was folly. But still it seemed
somehow natural to think that this was why she had come. The woman he
had hunted for far and wide–whom he had then neglected and thought no
more of–whom lately he had woke up to such horror and fear of, his
greatest danger, his worst enemy–was it she who was sitting so humbly
before him now?

“I have no right to trouble you, Mr. Brownlow,” she said; “it’s because
you were so kind to my boy. Many a time I wanted to come and thank you;
and now–oh, it’s a different thing now!”

“Your son is young Powys,” said Mr. Brownlow–“yes; I knew by–by the
face. He has gone home some time ago. I wonder you did not meet him in
the street.”

“Gone away from the office–not gone home,” said Mrs. Powys. “Oh, Mr.
Brownlow, I want to speak to you about him. He is as good as gold. He
never had another thought in his mind but his sisters and me. He’d come
and spend all his time with us when other young men were going about
their pleasure. There never was such a son as he was, nor a brother.
And oh, Mr. Brownlow, now it’s come to this! I feel as if it would break
my heart.”

“What has it come to?” said Mr. Brownlow. He drew forward a chair and
sat down facing her, and the noise he made in doing so seemed to wake
thunders in the empty house. He had got over his agitation by this time,
and was as calm as he always was. And his profession came to his help
and opened his eyes and ears to every thing that might be of use to him,
notwithstanding the effect the house had upon him in its stillness, and
this meeting which he had so much reason to fear.

“Oh, sir, it’s come to grief and trouble,” said the poor woman.
“Something has come between my boy and me. We are parted as far as if
the Atlantic was between us. I don’t know what is in his heart. Oh, sir,
it’s for your influence I’ve come. He’ll do any thing for you. It’s hard
to ask a stranger to help me with my own son, and him so good and so
kind; but if it goes on like this, it will break my heart.”

“I feared there was something wrong,” said Mr. Brownlow; “I feared it,
though I never thought it could have gone so far. I’ll do what I can,
but I fear it is little I can do. If he has taken to bad ways–”

But here the stranger gave a cry of denial which rung through the room.
“Bad ways! my boy!” said the mother. “Mr. Brownlow, you know a great
deal more than I do, but you don’t know my son. He taken to bad ways! I
would sooner believe I was wicked myself. I am wicked, to come and
complain of him to them that don’t know.”

“Then what in the name of goodness is it?” said the lawyer, startled out
of his seriousness. He began to lose the tragic sense of a dangerous
presence. It might be the woman he feared; but it was a homely,
incoherent, inconsequent personage all the same.

Mrs. Powys drew herself up solemnly. She too was less respectful of the
man who did not understand. “What it is, sir,” she said slowly, and with
a certain pomp, “is, that my boy has something on his mind.”

Something on his mind! John Brownlow sunk again into a strange fever of
suspense and curiosity and unreasonable panic. Could it be so? Could the
youth have found out something, and be sifting it to get at the truth?
The room seemed to take life and become a conscious spectator, looking
at him, to see how he would act in this emergency. But yet he persevered
in the course he had decided on, not giving in to his own feelings.
“What can he have on his mind?” he asked. His pretended ignorance
sounded in his own ears like a lie; but nevertheless he went on all the
same.

“That’s what I don’t know, sir,” said Mrs. Powys, putting her
handkerchief to her eyes. “He’s been rummaging among my papers, and he’s
may be found something, or he’s heard some talk that has put things in
his head. I know he has heard things in this very house–people talking
about families, and wills, and all that. His father was of a very good
family, Mr. Brownlow. I don’t know them, but I know they’re rich people.
May be it’s that, or perhaps–but I don’t know how to account for it.
It’s something that is eating into his heart. And he has such a
confidence in you! It was you that took him up when we were strangers,
and had nobody to look to us. I have a little that my poor husband left
me; but it’s very little to keep four upon; and I may say it’s you that
gave us bread, for that matter. There’s nothing in this world my boy
wouldn’t do for you.”

Then there was a pause. The poor woman had exhausted her words and her
self-command and her breath, and stopped perforce, and Mr. Brownlow did
not know how to reply. What could he say to her? It was a matter of
death and life between him and her boy, instead of the indifferent
question she thought. “Would you like me to speak to him?” he said at
last, with a little difficulty of utterance; “should I ask him what is
occupying his mind? But he might not choose to tell me. What would you
wish me to do?”

“Oh, sir, you’re very good,” said Mrs. Powys, melting into gratitude. “I
never can thank God enough that my poor boy has met with such a kind
friend.”

“Hush!” said Mr. Brownlow, rising from his chair. He could not bear
this; thanking God, as if God did not know well enough, too well, how
the real state of the matter was! He was not a man used to deception, or
who could adapt himself to it readily. He had all the habits of an
honest life against him, and that impulse to speak truth and do right
which he struggled with as if it were a temptation. Thus his position
was awfully the reverse of that of a man tempting and falling. He was
doing wrong with all the force of his will, and striving against his own
inclination and instinct of uprightness; but here was one thing beyond
his strength. To bring God in, and render him, as it were, a party, was
more than he could bear. “I am not so kind as you think,” he said
hoarsely. “I am not–I mean your son deserves all that I can do.”

“Oh, sir, that’s kind–that’s kindness itself to say so,” cried the poor
mother. “Nothing that could be said is so kind as that–and me, that was
beginning to lose faith in him! It was to ask you to speak to him, Mr.
Brownlow. If you were to ask him, he might open his heart to you. A
gentleman is different from a poor woman. Not that any body could feel
for him like me, but he would think such a deal of your advice. If you
would speak and get him to open his heart. That’s what I wanted to ask
you, if it’s not too much. If you would be so kind–and God knows, if
ever it was in my power or my children’s, though I’m but a poor
creature, to do any thing in this world that would be a service to
you–”

God again. What did the woman mean? And she was a widow, one of those
that God was said to take special charge of. It was bad enough before
without that. John Brownlow had gone to the fireless hearth, and was
standing by it leaning his head against the high carved wooden
mantel-piece, and looking down upon the cold vacancy where for so many
years the fire that warmed his inmost life had blazed and sparkled. He
stood thus and listened, and within him the void seemed as cold, and the
emptiness as profound. It was his moment of fate. He was going to cast
himself off from the life he had lived at that hearth–to make a
separation forever and ever between the John Brownlow, honest and
generous, who had been trained to manhood within these walls, and had
loved and married, and brought his bride to this fireside–and the
country gentleman who, in all his great house, would never more find the
easy heart and clear conscience which were natural to this atmosphere.
He stood there and looked down on the old domestic centre, and asked
himself if it was worth the terrible sacrifice; honor and honesty and
truth–and all to keep Brownlows for Sara, to preserve the grays, and
the flowers, and the park, and Jack’s wonderful mare, and all the
superfluities that these young creatures treated so lightly? Was it
worth the price? This was the wide fundamental question he was asking
himself, while his visitor, in her chair between him and the window,
spoke of her gratitude. But there was no trace in his face, even if she
could have seen it, that he had descended into the very depths, and was
debating with himself a matter of life and death. When her voice ceased,
Mr. Brownlow’s self-debate ceased too, coming to a sharp and sudden end,
as if it was only under cover of her words that it could pass unnoted.
Then he came toward her slowly, and took the chair opposite to her, and
met her eye. The color had gone out of his face, but he was too
self-possessed and experienced a man to show what the struggle was
through which he had just come. And the poor woman thought it so natural
that he should be full of thought. Was he not considering, in his
wonderful kindness, what he could do for her boy?

“I will do what you ask me,” he said. “It may be difficult, but I will
try. Don’t thank me, for you don’t know whether I shall succeed. I will
do–what I can. I will speak to your son, perhaps to-morrow–the
earliest opportunity I have. You were quite right to come. And–you
may–trust him–to me,” said Mr. Brownlow. He did not mean to say these
last words. What was it that drew them–dragged them from his lips? “You
may trust him to me.” He even repeated it twice, wondering at himself
all the while, and not knowing what he meant. As for poor Mrs. Powys,
she was overwhelmed by her gratitude.

“Oh, sir, with all my heart,” she cried, “him, and all my hopes in this
world!” And then she bade God bless him, who was so good to her and her
boy. Yes, that was the worst of it. John Brownlow felt that but too
clearly all through. It was hard enough to struggle with himself, with
his own conscience and instincts; but behind all that there was another
struggle which would be harder still–the struggle with God, to whom
this woman would appeal, and who, he was but too clearly aware, knew all
about it. But sufficient unto the moment was its own conflict. He took
his hat after that, and took his visitor down stairs, and answered the
amazed looks of the housekeeper, who came to see what this unusual
disturbance meant, with a few words of explanation, and shook hands with
Mrs. Powys at the door. The sunset glow had only just gone, so short a
time had this conversation really occupied, though it involved so much,
and the first magical tone of twilight had fallen into the evening air.
When Mr. Brownlow left the office door he went straight on, and did not
remember the carriage that was waiting for him. He was so much absorbed
by his own affairs, and had so many things to think of, that even the
strength of habit failed him. Without knowing, he set out walking upon
the well-known way. Probably the mere fact of movement was a solace to
him. He went along steadily by the budding hedgerows and the little
gardens and the cottage doors, and did not know it. What he was really
doing was holding conversations with young Powys, conversations with his
children, all mingled and penetrated with one long never-ending conflict
with himself. He had been passive hitherto, now he would have to be
active. He had contented himself simply with keeping back the knowledge
which, after all, it was not his business to give. Now, if he was to
gain his object, he must do positively what he had hitherto done
negatively. He must mislead–he must contradict–he must lie. The young
man’s knowledge of his rights, if they were his rights, must be very
imperfect. To confuse him, to deceive him, to destroy all possible
evidence, to use every device to lose his time and blind his eyes, was
what Mr. Brownlow had now to do.

And there can be no doubt that, but for the intervention of personal
feelings, it would have been an easy thing enough to do. If there had
been no right and wrong involved, no personal advantage or loss, how
very simple a matter to make this youth, who had such perfect confidence
in him, believe as he pleased; and how easy after to make much of young
Powys, to advance him, to provide for him–to do a great deal better for
him, in short, than he could do for himself with old Mrs. Thomson’s
fifty thousand pounds! If there was no right and wrong involved! Mr.
Brownlow walked on and on as he thought, and never once observed the
length of the way. One thing in the world he could not do–that was, to
take away all the sweet indulgences with which he had surrounded her,
the delights, the luxuries, the position, from his child. He could not
reduce Sara to be Brownlow the solicitor’s daughter in the dark
old-fashioned house at Masterton. He went over all her pretty ways to
himself as he went on. He saw her gliding about the great house which
seemed her natural sphere. He saw her receiving his guests, people who
would not have known her, or would at least have patronized her from a
very lofty distance, had she been in that house at Masterton; he saw her
rolling forth in her pretty carriage with the grays, which were the envy
of the county. All these matters were things for which, in his own
person, John Brownlow cared not a straw. He did not care even to secure
them for his son, who was a man and had his profession, and was no
better than himself; but Sara–and then the superb little princess she
was to the rest of the world! the devoted little daughter she was to
him! Words of hers came somehow dropping into his ears as the twilight
breathed around him. How she had once said–Good heavens! what was that
she had said?

All at once Mr. Brownlow awoke. He found himself walking on the Dewsbury
road, instead of driving, as he ought to have been. He remembered that
the dog-cart was waiting for him in the market-place. He became aware
that he had forgotten himself, forgotten every thing, in the stress and
urgency of his thoughts. What was the galvanic touch that brought him
back to consciousness? The recollection of half a dozen words once
spoken by his child–girlish words, perhaps forgotten as soon as
uttered; yet when he stopped, and turned round to see how far he had
come, though he had been walking very moderately and the evening was not
warm, a sudden rush of color, like a girl’s blush, had come to his face.
If the mare had been in sight, in her wildest mood, it would have been a
relief to him to seize the reins, and fight it out with her, and fly on,
at any risk, away from that spot, away from that thought, away from the
suggestion so humbling, so saving, so merciful and cruel, which had
suddenly entered his mind. But the mare was making every body very
uncomfortable in the market-place at Masterton, and could not aid her
master to escape from himself. Then he turned again, and went on. It was
a seven miles walk, and he had come three parts of the way; but even the
distance that remained was long to a man who had suddenly fallen into
company with a new idea which he would rather not entertain. He felt the
jar in all his limbs from this sudden electric shock. Sara had said it,
it was true–she had meant it. He had her young life in his hands, and
he could save Brownlows to her, and yet save his soul. Which was the
most to be thought of, his soul or her happiness? that was the question.
Such was the sudden tumult that ran through John Brownlow’s veins. He
seemed to be left there alone in the country quiet, in the soft
twilight, under the dropping dew, to consider it, shut out from all
counsel or succor of God or man. Man he himself shut out, locking his
secret in his own breast–God! whom he knew his last struggle was to be
with, whom that woman had insisted on bringing in, a party to the whole
matter–was not He standing aside, in a terrible stillness, a spectator,
waiting to see what would come of it, refusing all participation? Would
God any more than man approve of this way of saving John Brownlow’s
soul? But the more he tried to escape from it the more it came back. She
had said it, and she had meant it, with a certain sweet scorn of life’s
darker chances, and faith unbounded in her father, of all men, who was
God’s deputy to the child. Mr. Brownlow quickened his pace, walked
faster and faster, till his heart thumped against his breast, and his
breath came in gasps; but he could not go so fast as his thoughts, which
were always in advance of him. Thus he came to the gate of Brownlows
before he knew. It was the prettiest evening scene. Twilight had settled
down to the softest night; big stars, lambent and dilating, were coming
softly out, as if to look at something out of the sweet blue. And it was
no more dark than it was light. Old Betty, on her step, was sitting
crooning, with many quavers, one of her old songs. And Pamela, who had
just watered her flowers, leaned over the gate, smiling, and listening
with eyes that were very like the stars. Somehow this picture went to
Mr. Brownlow’s heart. He went up to the child as he passed, and laid a
kind hand upon her pretty head, on the soft rings of her dark hair.
“Good-night, little one,” he said, quite softly, with that half shame
which a man feels when he betrays that he has a heart in him. He had
never taken so much notice of her before. It was partly because any
thing associated with Sara touched him to the quick at this moment;
partly for her own sake, and for the sake of the dews and stars; and
partly that his mind was overstrained and tottering. “Poor little
thing,” he said to himself, as he went up the avenue, “she is nobody,
and she is happy.” With this passing thought, Mr. Brownlow fell once
more into the hands of his demon, and, thus agitated and struggling,
reached his home.

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