A GUARDIAN

It was Jack who hurried his sister down the avenue in obedience to that
peremptory summons. The effects of the fresh air and rapid movement
roused her, as we have said, and nobody but herself had been aware that
her strength had ever failed her. Jack was wound up to the last pitch of
suspense and agitation; but he could not say a word to her–would not
tell her what she was to do. “How can I tell till I see what is wanted
of you?” he said, savagely. She did not know what might be laid upon
her, or why she was sent for; but she was left to accept the office
alone. He gave her no help except his arm to support her down the
avenue–a support which was not of much use to Sara, for her brother
walked at such a pace that she was scarcely able to keep up with him. He
was walking a great deal more rapidly than he was at all aware. Things
had come to a climax in Jack’s mind. He was burning with feverish
irritation, anxiety, eagerness, and panic. He had thought that his mind
was made up, and that nothing farther would disturb him. But in a moment
he had become more disturbed than ever. The end that must decide every
thing had come.

There was a certain air of excitement about Swayne’s cottages as they
approached. Old Betty’s lodge was closed and vacant for one thing, and
the gates set wide open; and the blinds were down in Mrs. Swayne’s
windows, and her neighbor stood in the little garden outside watching,
with her hand on the door. She was waiting for their coming; and Betty
within, who was utterly useless so far as the patient was concerned,
flitted up and down stairs looking for the arrival of the visitor who
was so anxiously expected. They received Sara with a mixture of eager
curiosity and deference. “She’s been a-calling for you, Miss,” said Mrs.
Swayne’s neighbor, “as if she would go out of her mind.” “She’s
a-calling for you now,” cried old Betty; “she don’t seem to have another
thought in her head–and the rector by the bedside all the same, and her
so near her latter end!” Even Mr. Swayne himself, with his wife’s shawl
round him, had come to the kitchen door to join in the general
sentiment. “The Lord be praised as you’ve come, Miss Sara,” he said. “I
thought as she’d have driven me wild.” This preface was not of a kind to
calm Sara’s nerves. She went up stairs confused with all the salutations
addressed to her, and full of awe, almost of fear. To be sent for by a
woman on her death-bed was of itself something alarming and awful. And
this woman above all.

As for Jack, all that he heard of this babble was the intimation that
the rector was there. It added another spark, if that were possible, to
the fire in his heart. The doctor knew all about it–now here was
another, yet another, to be taken into the dying woman’s confidence.
Though nobody asked for him, and though his presence seemed little
desirable, he went up after his sister without saying a word to any one.
They could hear the voice of the patient as they approached–a voice
almost unintelligible, thick and babbling, like the voice of an idiot,
and incessant. Mrs. Preston’s eyes still blazing with wild anxiety and
suspicion met Sara’s wondering, wistful gaze as she went timidly into
the room. Pamela stood by like a ghost with utter weariness and a kind
of dull despair in her pallid face. She could not understand what it all
meant. To her the _mot_ of the enigma, which had been wanting at the
commencement, could now never be supplied, for she was too completely
worn out in body and mind to be able to receive a new idea. She beckoned
to Sara almost impatiently as she opened the door. “Yes, mamma, she has
come–she has come,” said Pamela. Mr. Hardcastle was standing behind her
with his prayer-book in his hand, looking concerned and impatient. He
was amazed at the neglect with which he was being treated in the first
place, and, to do him justice, he also felt strongly that, as Betty
said, she was near her latter end, and other interests should be
foremost in her mind. Old Betty herself came pressing in after Jack, and
Mrs. Swayne followed her a few minutes later, and the neighbor stood
outside on the landing. Their curiosity was roused to such a pitch that
it eclipsed every other feeling–not that the women were hard-hearted or
indifferent to the solemn moment which was at hand, they all wanted to
know what she could have to say to Sara, and they were all curious to
witness the tragedy about to be enacted and to see whether she made a
good end.

“Ah, she’s come,” said Mrs. Preston in her thick voice. “Bring her here
to me. Not _him_–I don’t want him. Sara! come here! It’s you I can
speak to–only you. Give me something. I have a dozen words to say, and
I must say them strong.”

“Here, mamma,” said Pamela, who watched with a sort of mechanical
accuracy every indication of her mother’s will; and she put her soft arm
under Mrs. Preston’s head and raised her with a strain of her slight
girlish form, which at another moment would have been impossible. Jack
made a step forward involuntarily to help her, but stopped short,
arrested by the dying woman’s eyes, which she fixed upon him over
Pamela’s shoulder as the cordial which was to give her strength to speak
was put to her lips. She stopped even at that moment to look at him.
“Not you,” she said, hoarsely–“not you.” It was not that he cared what
she said, or even understood it, in his own excitement; but Pamela had
her back turned upon him as she supported her mother; and Jack felt with
a pang of poignant humiliation that there was no place for him there.
Even her interests, the charge of her, seemed to be passing out of his
hands.

“If you are going to speak to me–about–any thing,” cried Sara, “I
don’t know what it is–nor why you should send for _me_; but do you want
all these people too?”

Mrs. Preston looked at them vaguely–but she took no notice of what Sara
said. “I have sent for you,” she cried, uttering two or three words at a
time, as if making a last effort to be intelligible, “because you saved
me. I leave her to you; you’re only a girl; you will not kill her; for
the sake of her money. My mother’s money! And to think we might all have
been–comfortable–and happy! and now, I’m going to die!”

“Oh, mamma!” cried Pamela, clasping her hands wildly, “if you would but
put away every thing from your mind–if you would but stop, thinking,
and do what the doctor says, you might get better yet.”

The dying woman made an attempt as it were to shake her head–she made a
dreadful attempt to smile. “Poor child!” she said, and something like a
tear got into her dilated eyes, “she don’t know. That’s life; never to
know–till the very last–when you might have been happy–and
comfortable; and then to die–”

“Mrs. Preston,” cried Sara, going up to the bed, “I don’t know what you
mean or what I can do; but, oh, if you will only listen to Pamela! You
are strong–you can speak and remember every thing. Oh, can’t you try to
live for her sake? We will all pray,” she cried with tears, “every one
of us–if you will only try! Oh, Mr. Hardcastle, pray for her–why
should she die, and she so strong? and to leave Pamela like this!”

“Hush,” said Mr. Hardcastle, almost sternly, “Sara, you forget there are
things more important than life.”

“Not to Pamela!” cried Sara, carried away by the vehemence of her
feelings. “Oh, Mrs. Preston, try! You are strong yet–you could live if
you were to try.”

A kind of spasm passed over the poor woman’s face. Perhaps a momentary
hope of being able to make that effort crossed her mind–perhaps it was
only a terrible smile at the vanity of the proposal. But it passed and
left her eyes more wild in their passionate entreaty than before, “You
don’t–answer,” she said; “you forsake me–like the rest. Sara! Sara!
you are killing me. She is killing me. Give me an answer. Oh, my God,
she will not speak!”

Sara looked round upon them all in her dismay. “You should have the
doctor,” she said: her inexperienced mind had seized upon Pamela’s
incoherent remonstrance. “Where is the doctor? Oh, could not something
be done for her if he was here?”

Then Pamela gave a low cry. Her mother, who had been motionless for
hours, after a wild struggle turned her head round upon the pillow. Her
palsied fingers fluttered on the coverlid as if with an attempt to
stretch themselves out toward Sara. Her eyes were ready to start from
their sockets. “She will not speak to me!” she cried–“although she
saved me. I make her guardian of my child. Do you hear?–is there any
one to hear me? She is to take care of my Pamela. She is killing me.
Sara, Sara! do you hear? I am speaking to you. You are to take care of
my Pamela. I leave her to you–”

“Do what she says,” said a low voice at Sara’s shoulder. “Promise any
thing–every thing. She must not be thwarted now.”

Sara did not know who it was that spoke. She made a step forward,
recovering her native impetuosity. She laid her warm living hand upon
the cold half-dead one of the dying woman and left it there, though the
touch thrilled to her heart. “I will take care of her,” she said, “I
promise, as if she was my sister. Do you hear me now, Mrs. Preston? I
promise with all my heart. Oh, Pamela, I don’t think she hears me! I
have said it too late–she is going to die.”

The doctor, who had spoken to Sara, came forward and drew her softly
from the bedside. “Take her away,” he said to Jack, who all this while
had been looking on. “Take them both away–they can do no good here–”

Sara, who was trembling in every limb, fell back upon her brother’s
supporting arm; but when Jack held out his other hand to Pamela she made
him no reply. She was weaker than Sara, but she was a hundred times
stronger. She gave him one pitiful look and returned to her mother. That
was her place, come what might; and she was so young, that even now she
could not recognize that there was no hope.

Then Jack took his sister down stairs. They went into the little parlor,
which was full to his mind of so many associations. Sara had not, like
Pamela, the support of intense and overwhelming emotion. She was shaken
to the very depths by this extraordinary trial. As soon as it was over
she fell into hysterical sobbing like a child. She could not restrain
herself. She sunk upon the little black sofa in the parlor, where Mrs.
Preston had so often rested, and hid her face in her hands to keep down
as far as she could the irrepressible sobs. Jack had begun to walk about
the room and seemed to take no notice; but he was thinking in his heart
how small a matter it was to her in comparison with what it was to
Pamela, though it was she and not Pamela who indulged in this show of
sorrow. He was unkind to his sister; he was bitter against her, and
against all the world. It was his natural charge that had been
transferred to her hands; and who was Sara that she should have such a
guardianship given to her? He vowed to himself that it was he and only
he who should take care of Pamela. Sara? a girl who knew nothing about
it–a child with no power to take care of herself–the woman must be
mad. He went to the door with a little excitement as the sound became
audible of other people coming down stairs. The spectators who had
crowded into Mrs. Preston’s sick room were being sent away, and old
Betty, thus deprived of one source of interest, came in courtesying to
make herself useful to Sara. “Poor soul, she’s awful bad;” said Betty,
“but, Miss Sara, don’t you take on; you’ve been a comfort to her. She’s
a deal easier in her mind; she’s found friends for her girl, as was
always her great thought. Don’t you take on–”

“Oh, Betty, is she dead?” cried Sara, to whom the sympathy even of this
old woman was a consolation, excited as she was.

“No, Miss,” said Betty, shaking her head. “It ain’t so easy getting shut
o’ this life. She ain’t dead, nor won’t be not yet awhile–judging by
all as I’ve seen in my day.”

“Then she is getting better,” cried Sara, clasping her hands. “Oh, Jack,
thank God! she is going to live.”

Old Betty again shook her head. “Miss Sara, you’re young,” she said;
“you don’t know no better. She ain’t a-going to live. But them things
take more nor a minute. This world had need to be a better place than it
is to most on us; for it’s hard work a-getting in and it’s harder work
a-getting out. She may lie like that for days and days. Most folks get
to be glad at last when it’s over. It’s weary work, both for them as is
nursin’ and them as is dyin’; but it’s what we all has to go through,”
said Betty, with a conventional sigh.

This time, however, Betty, with all her experience, was not a true
prophet. The strength of the dying woman was fictitious. As soon as she
had got beyond the point at which her mind could still work, her body
went down like so much dead weight; consciousness and intelligence had
failed her while Sara was in the act of making her promise, and in a few
minutes the rector, excited and rather angry, joined the others down
stairs. “You should have waited, Sara,” he said, severely; “no worldly
affairs could be so important as to justify–And then what can you do
for the poor girl? I would humor the fancies of the dying as much as any
one; but if the poor thing is left destitute, unless you take her into
your service–”

“Mr. Hardcastle,” exclaimed Jack, furious, “do you know whom you are
speaking of? Miss Preston is my betrothed wife.”

The rector fell back in dismay for a moment. Then he recovered himself
with a certain dignity. “My dear Jack,” he said, “this is not a moment
to discuss any act of youthful folly. Your good father ought to know of
this. Don’t, I beg of you, don’t say any thing more to me.”

“And all that we have in the world belongs to Pamela,” said Sara, with a
sigh. Mr. Hardcastle looked at the brother and sister, and his usual
discrimination forsook him. He thought they were both out of their
senses. As there was nobody else to communicate with, he looked round at
old Betty, who stood listening eagerly; and Betty, too, elevated her
eyebrows, and shook her head. Were they going mad? Was there some idiocy
in the air which affected every body? The rector went to the window, and
turned his back upon them, and looked out in his bewilderment. He felt
very sorry for poor Mr. Brownlow. Then he seemed to get a glimmering of
the meaning of it all. It was for Sara’s aid in securing this marriage
that the poor creature up stairs had been so anxious. Her mind had been
passionately occupied about merely worldly interests to the last; and
for this he and his higher consolation had been thrust away. Poor
Brownlow! Mr. Hardcastle thought of his own dutiful Fanny, who never
gave way to any vagaries. And he buttoned his coat with a friendly
instinct. “I am going to see your father, as I can be of no farther use
here,” he said; and there was a world of disapproval in his tone.

But just then there were some hurried movements above, and a cry. It was
Pamela, who was calling on her mother, appealing to an ear which no
longer heard. They all knew instinctively what it meant. Sara started
up, trembling and clasping her hands. She had never been in the same
house with death before–never that she knew of; and a dreadful sense
that Mrs. Preston had suddenly become a spiritual presence, and was
everywhere about her, seized upon the girl. “I promise,” she said,
wildly, with lips that gave forth very little sound. As for Jack, he too
started as if something had struck him. He went up to his sister, though
he had been angry with her, and took her into his arms for a moment.
“Sara, go to her,” he said. He forgot all about secondary things–his
heart bled for his Pamela. “Go to her!” he cried; and something like a
sob came from his breast. Not for the poor soul that was gone–not for
her to whom at last the trouble and toil were over; for the young
creature who remained behind to profit by all the mother’s unrewarded
pains–for the living, not for the dead.

The doctor came down stairs shortly after; and though he was grave,
there was a professional tone about him which dispelled the awe of the
group below. “It is all over,” he said, “and a very good thing too for
that poor girl. She could not have stood it much longer. I am very glad
Miss Brownlow has gone to her. It’s excessively good of your sister. I
was obliged to interfere, you know. Nobody need hold themselves bound,
unless they please, by a promise extorted like that; but in such a case
one never can tell what might have happened. The patient must be
humored. I feared–”

“No more,” said Jack–“don’t say any more; you did what was quite right.
It is Miss Preston who must be considered now. Could she be removed at
once? Would it be safe to take her away at once? for my sister, of
course, I mean.”

“Miss Preston?” said the doctor, a little puzzled. “Oh, the daughter,
you mean, poor thing! It would be the very best plan to take her away;
but she is a good little thing, and she wouldn’t go.”

“Never mind your opinion of her,” cried Jack, keeping his temper with
difficulty. “Tell me if we can take her away?”

“She will not go,” said the doctor, offended in his turn. “As for
opinions, I have a right to my opinion if she was the queen. She’s not
the sort of girl to be taken away. After the funeral it may be done,
perhaps. Good-morning. I shall see her to-morrow. Mr. Hardcastle, if you
like I can set you down at the rectory–I am going that way.”

“Thanks, I have to go somewhere else first,” said the rector; and the
other parish functionary departed accordingly, going softly for the
first dozen steps out of respect for the dead. Then Mr. Hardcastle put
on his hat, and looked at Jack.

“I am going to Brownlows,” he said. “I am very sorry to have such an
office to fulfill; but your father must know, Jack, what has been going
on here to-day.”

Jack was in no merry mood, but he was unable to retain a short hard
laugh which relieved him as well as any other expression of feeling.
“Yes, you are free to tell him,” he said, and he felt disposed to laugh
again loudly when he looked at the rector’s severe and disapproving
face. It gave him a certain cynical and grim amusement to see it. How
blind and stupid every body was! What immovable, shallow dolts, to look
on at all those mysteries of death and ruin, and never to be a whit the
wiser! He could have laughed, but his laughter, such as it was, was
internal–that too might be misunderstood. He waved old Betty
impatiently away, and he turned his back on Mr. Hardcastle who was
going. When he turned round again both were gone. He even paused to
think they were not so unlike each other; Betty perhaps on the whole had
most understanding of the two. He went to the window and watched the old
woman cross reluctantly to the lodge, and the rector enter the avenue.
Betty, however, could not stay away. She came stealing back again, not
perceiving Jack, looking cautiously round to make sure that both the
rector and the doctor were out of sight. She stopped to speak to the
neighbor who was at her door, and they shook their heads over the sad
story, and then Betty crept into Mrs. Swayne’s cottage and stole up
stairs. Jack took the pains to watch all this, but it was not because he
was interested in old Betty. He was reluctant to go back to his own
thoughts–to face the situation in which he found himself. When he could
delay no longer, he sat down at the table as if he had work to do, and
buried his head in his hands. Yes, she was dead, poor woman! The fortune
which had excited her almost to madness, which had changed her from an
humble, tender creature anxious to serve every body, into an elated
tyrant eager to tramp the world under foot, had never reached her grasp.
Poor soul! At the very last moment of her life to undergo this awful
temptation and to fall under it, and give the lie to all her dutiful and
pious existence! Instead of pondering over his own difficulty, these
were the reflections in which Jack’s mind plunged itself. She had gone
where money could do her no good, and yet at the very end she had
agitated and even stained her spotless life for it, leaving painful
recollections behind her, though she had been a good woman, perhaps even
shortening her own days. What a hard fate it was! how cruel to have had
the irresistible temptation so late, and to have no time left her to
efface the recollection of her momentary frenzy. Jack’s heart grew soft
toward her as it all came before him. Poor soul! Poor woman! no time
even to say her prayers and ask God’s pardon before she died; perhaps,
however, on the whole, though Mr. Hardcastle might be of a different
opinion, God, who knew all, was less likely to be deceived by that
ebullition than man. When he tried to think of his own course of action
at this difficult moment, his mind went off at a tangent. It was in vain
that he attempted to consider what he was to do. The quiet of death had
fallen over the agitated house in which he sat, and his own agitation
died out in that chilly calm. Then he got up with a kind of dull
composure in his mind to go home. Every thing must be postponed now
until the few first days of darkness were over. It was the only tribute
that could be paid to the dead.

Before he went away Sara came to him for a moment. Her eyes were red
with crying, but she had recovered herself. “Tell papa I must stay with
her,” said Sara. “I can not leave her. I don’t think she could have
borne it much longer; and there is only me to take care of her now.”

“You? to take care of her?” cried Jack. “How long is this folly to last?
Am not I to see her?” and then his flash of resentment died away. “Sara,
if you are not good to her, tender to her!” he said with tears coming
into his eyes in spite of him. “And she so young! not much more than a
child. Why can’t I bring down the carriage for her, and take her home?”

“And leave her mother here!” said Sara, turning away with the impatience
of excitement. As for Jack, he was walking about in the passage while
she spoke to him from the stair. He could have cried like one of the
girls–he could have taken his sister in his arms, or have stormed at
her. A hundred contradictory contending feelings were in his heart.

“Her mother is dead,” he said. “What good can she do here now? why can’t
you show her the reason of it? she would be much better at Brownlows.
The doctor said so. She will come with you.”

“Never while her mother lies there,” cried Sara–“her poor mother who
loved her so! I know what is in her heart; and she shall do as she
pleases. Tell papa, unless he wants me, that I must stay here.”

And she stayed, and Jack went up the avenue alone. He met two carriages
coming down, and had to stop and tell why he had not been present to say
good-bye, and what had detained Sara. The ladies in the carriages stared
very strangely at his few brief words of apology. And they gazed at each
other in consternation as they passed on. It might be very good of Sara
to go and watch by a sick-bed, but to leave her guests for it, to let
them all depart without a word as if it had been a hotel–altogether it
was a strange family. Mr. Brownlow had told them he expected to be
ruined, though there was no visible appearance of it. And Sara had
rushed away from them, from the head of the table without a word, on the
very last day, to attend a poor woman’s death-bed. Not very much like
Sara, they said; and they began to give each other significant looks and
to ask if the Brownlows had “any thing wrong” in their blood. They were
so new as a county family. People had no information about their
grandfathers and grandmothers; but they looked as if they were all
mad–that was the fact. It was the strangest way to treat their guests.

And there were some of the guests, as Jack found on returning to the
house, who were not going to leave till the next day. They were sulky
and offended, as was natural. To make arrangements for a pleasant visit,
and to be all but turned out before the time you had yourself fixed–and
then to have your mind confused by vague stories about ruin and loss,
and somebody who was dying! It was not to be supposed that any one could
be pleased. Mr. Hardcastle had been there, and he had not mended
matters. He had told one or two men how sorry he was for poor
Brownlow–how he feared Jack had got entangled somehow, and had been so
foolish as to involve his sister–and how things were in a bad way. All
sorts of vague rumors were floating about the house–the servants were
prepared for any thing, from the reduction of their wages to the arrest
of their master. They watched the door anxiously, and cast furtive looks
down the avenue, that they might not be taken unprepared; and Mr. Willis
secretly removed a good deal of the plate into a dark corner of the wine
cellar. “Master might want it,” he said to himself–judging it not off
the cards that master might be obliged to run away, and might be glad of
a silver tea-pot or so to pay his expenses.

How they could have got through the evening it is impossible to tell,
had not Sara appeared before dinner, very pale, with red eyes, and a
melancholy face. Every body rushed at her when she appeared–in a kind
of consternation. And for a moment it seemed to both her father and
brother that their adversary had come alive, and that the struggle was
to begin again. Sara’s explanation, however, was the simple one that
Pamela had fallen asleep, and that she had thought they would want her
at home for dinner. So she went and dressed herself, like a martyr, and
carried them through the embarrassed meal. It was she upon whom the
chief burden fell, and she took up the weight and carried it without
flinching. So the long confused eventful day came to an end. When it was
late and all the bewildered people had retired to their rooms, Mr.
Brownlow and Jack took her down the avenue, guarding her tenderly, one
on either side. There was little said between them, but their hearts
were full–a kind of gratitude, a kind of sorrow, a certain pervading
sense of union and sympathy had come into their minds; and the two men
regarded with a half wondering, half pitying enthusiasm, a waking up of
all the springs of natural love, the soft creature between them, the
indulged, petted, faulty girl who now had every thing to do. They both
kissed her when they left her, with an overflowing of their hearts, and
stood and looked at the dark cottage with the faint lights in its
windows, saying nothing. In the upper window was the dim glow of the
light in the chamber of the dead–the needless pathetic glimmer which
shone faintly over the covered face and closed eyes; below, in the
little parlor, where a bed had been hastily prepared for her, Pamela was
sleeping in her profound exhaustion, almost as pale as her mother,
shaded from the dim candlelight. The father and son did not speak, but
they grasped each other’s hands closely as they looked at the house, and
turned away and walked home in silence. A certain confusion,
consolation, and calm, all mingled with wonder and suspense, had come
over them–words were of no use at that moment. And Sara went in and
took up her guardianship–and slept and waked and watched all night long
in the weakness and strength of her youth.

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