A SUDDEN ALARM

The unpleasant suggestion which had been brought before Mr. Brownlow’s
mind that day, while Sara accomplished her visit to her grandmother,
came after this wise:

His mind had been going leisurely over his affairs in general, as he
went down to his office; for naturally, now that he was so rich, he had
many affairs of his own beside that placid attention to other people’s
affairs which was his actual trade; and it had occurred to him that at
one point there was a weakness in his armor. One of his investments had
not been so skillful or so prudent as the rest, and it looked as if it
might call for farther and farther outlay before it could be made
profitable, if indeed it were ever made profitable. When he got to the
office, Mr. Brownlow, like a prudent man, looked into the papers
connected with this affair, and took pains to understand exactly how he
stood, and what farther claims might be made upon him. And while he was
doing this, certain questions of date arose which set clearly before
him, what he had for the moment forgotten, that the time of his
responsibility to Phœbe Thomson was nearly over, and that in a year
no claim could be made against him for Mrs. Thomson’s fifty thousand
pounds. The mere realization of this fact gave him a certain thrill of
uncertainty and agitation. He had not troubled himself about it for
years, and during that time he had felt perfectly safe and comfortable
in his possessions; but to look upon it in actual black and white, and
to see how near he was to complete freedom, gave him a sudden sense of
his present risk, such as he had never felt before. To repay the fifty
thousand pounds would have been no such difficult matter, for Mrs.
Thomson’s money had been lucky money, and had, as we have said, doubled
and trebled itself; but there was interest for five-and-twenty years to
be reckoned; and there was no telling what other claims the heir, if an
heir should turn up, might bring against the old woman’s executor. Mr.
Brownlow felt for one sharp moment as if Sara’s splendor and her
happiness was at the power of some unknown vagabond who might make a
sudden claim any moment when he was unprepared upon the inheritance
which for all these years had appeared to him as his own. It was a sort
of danger which could not be guarded against, but rather, indeed, ought
to be invited; though it would be hard–no doubt it would be hard, after
all this interval–to give up the fortune which he had accepted with
reluctance, and which had cost him, as he felt, a hundred times more
trouble than it had ever given him pleasure. Now that he had begun to
get a little good out of it, to think of some stealthy vagrant coming in
and calling suddenly for his rights, and laying claim perhaps to all the
increase which Mr. Brownlow’s careful management had made of the
original, was an irritating idea. He tried to put it away, and perhaps
he might have been successful in banishing it from his mind but for
another circumstance that fixed it there, and gave, as it seemed,
consistency and force to the thought.

The height of the day was over, and the sun was veering toward that
point of the compass from which its rays shone in at John Brownlow’s
windows, when he was asked if he would see a young man who came about
the junior clerk’s place. Mr. Brownlow had very nearly made up his mind
as to who should fill this junior clerk’s place; but he was
kind-hearted, and sent no one disconsolate away if it were possible to
help it. After a moment’s hesitation, he gave orders for the admission
of this young man. “If he does not do for that, he may be good for
something else,” was what John Brownlow said; for it was one of his
crotchets, that to help men to work was better than almsgiving. The
young man in question had nothing very remarkable in his appearance. He
had a frank, straightforward, simple sort of air, which partly, perhaps,
arose from the great defect in his face–the projection of the upper
jaw, which was well garnished with large white teeth. He had, however,
merry eyes, of the kind that smile without knowing it whenever they
accost another countenance; but his other features were all
homely–expressive, but not remarkable. He came in modestly, but he was
not afraid; and he stood respectfully and listened to Mr. Brownlow, but
there was no servility in his attitude. He had come about the clerk’s
place, and he was quite ready to give an account of himself. His father
had been a non-commissioned officer, but was dead; and his mother wanted
his help badly enough.

“But you are strangers in Masterton,” said Mr. Brownlow, attracted by
his frank looks. “Had you any special inducement to come here?”

“Nothing of any importance,” said the youth, and he colored a little.
“The fact is, sir, my mother came of richer people than we are now, and
they cast her off; and some of them once lived in Masterton. She came to
see if she could hear any thing of her friends.”

“And did she?” said John Brownlow, feeling his breath come a little
quick.

“They are all dead long ago,” said the young man. “We have all been
born in Canada, and we never heard what had happened. Her moth–I mean
her friends, are all dead, I suppose; and Masterton is just as good as
any other place to make a beginning in. I should not be afraid if I
could get any thing to do.”

“Clerk’s salaries are very small,” said Mr. Brownlow, without knowing
what it was he said.

“Yes, but they improve,” said his visitor, cheerfully; “and I don’t mind
what I do. I could make up books or do any thing at night, or even have
pupils–I have done that before. But I beg your pardon for troubling you
with all this. If the place is filled up–”

“Nay, stop–sit down–you interest me,” said Mr. Brownlow. “I like a
young fellow who is not easily cast down. Your mother–belongs–to
Masterton, I suppose,” he added, with a little hesitation; he, that gave
way to no man in Dartfordshire for courage and coolness, he was afraid.
He confessed it to himself, and felt all the shame of the new sensation,
but it had possession of him all the same.

“She belongs to the Isle of Man,” said the young man, with his frank
straightforward look and the smile in his eyes. He answered quite simply
and point-blank, having no thought that there was any second meaning in
his words; but it was otherwise with him who heard. John Brownlow sat
silent, utterly confounded. He stared at the young stranger in a blank
way, not knowing how to answer or how to conceal or account for the
tremendous impression which these simple words made on him. He sat and
stared, and his lower lip fell a little, and his eyes grew fixed, so
that the youth was terrified, and did not know what to make of it. Of
course he seized upon the usual resource of the disconcerted–“I beg
your pardon,” he said, “but I am afraid you are ill.”

“No, no; it is nothing,” said Mr. Brownlow. “I knew some people once who
came from the Isle of Man. But that is a long time ago. I am sorry she
has not found the people she sought for. But, as you say, there is
nothing like work. If you can engross well–though how you should know
how to engross after taking pupils and keeping books–”

“We have to do a great many things in the colony,” said his young
visitor. “If a man wants to live, he must not be particular about what
he does. I was two years in a lawyer’s office in Paris–”

“In Paris?” said Mr. Brownlow, with amazement.

“I mean in Paris, Canada West,” said the youth, with a touch of
momentary defiance, as who would say, “and a very much better Paris than
any you can boast of here.”

This little accident did so much good that it enabled Mr. Brownlow to
smile, and to shake off the oppression that weighed upon him. It was a
relief to be able to question the applicant as to his capabilities,
while secretly and rapidly in his own mind he turned over the matter,
and asked himself what he should do. Discourage the young man and direct
him elsewhere, and gently push him out of Masterton–or take him in and
be kind to him, and trust in Providence? The panic of the moment
suggested the first course, but a better impulse followed. In the first
place, it was not easy to discourage a young fellow with those sanguine
brown eyes, and blood that ran so quickly in his veins; and if any
danger was at hand, it was best to have it near, and be able to study
it, and be warned at once how and when it might approach. All this
passed rapidly, like an under-current, through John Brownlow’s mind, as
he sat and asked innumerable questions about the young applicant’s
capabilities and antecedents. He did it to gain time, though all young
Powys thought was that he had never gone through so severe an
examination. The young fellow smiled within himself at the wonderful
precision and caution of the old man, with a kind of transatlantic
freedom–not that he was republican, but only colonial; not irritated by
his employer’s superiority, but regarding it as an affair of perhaps
only a few days or years.

“I will think it over,” said Mr. Brownlow at last. “I can not decide
upon any thing all at once. If you settle quietly down and get a
situation, I think you may do very well here. It is not a dear place,
and if your mother has friends–”

“But she has no friends now that we know of,” said the young man, with
the unnecessary and persistent explanatoriness of youth.

“If she has friends here,” persisted Mr. Brownlow, “you may be sure they
will turn up. Come back to me to-morrow. I will think it all over in the
mean time, and give you my answer then. Powys–that is a very good
name–there was a Lady Powys here some time ago, who was exceedingly
good and kind to the poor. Perhaps it was she whom you sought–”

“Oh, no,” said the young man, eagerly; “it was my mother’s people–a
family called–”

“I am afraid I have an engagement now,” said Mr. Brownlow; and then
young Powys withdrew, with that quiet sense of shame and compunction
which belongs only to his years. He, of course, as was natural, could
see nothing of the tragic under-current. It appeared to him only that he
was intruding his private affairs, in an unjustifiable way, on his
probable patron–on the man who had been kind to him, and given him
hope. “What an ass I am!” he said to himself as he went away, “as if he
could take any interest in my mother’s friends.” And it troubled the
youth all day to think that he had possibly wearied Mr. Brownlow by his
explanations and iteration–an idea as mistaken as it was possible to
conceive.

When he had left the office, the lawyer fell back in his chair, and for
a long time neither moved nor spoke. Probably it was the nature of his
previous reflections which gave this strange visit so overwhelming an
effect. He sat in a kind of stupor, seeing before him, as it appeared in
actual bodily presence, the danger which it had startled him this same
morning to realize as merely possible. If it had been any other day, he
might have heard, without much remarking, all those singular
coincidences which now appeared so startling; but they chimed in so
naturally, or rather so unnaturally, with the tenor of his thoughts,
that his panic was superstitious and overwhelming. He sat a long time
without moving, almost without breathing, feeling as if it was some kind
of fate that approached him. After so many years that he had not thought
of this danger, it seemed to him at last that the thoughts which had
entered his mind in the morning must have been premonitions sent by
Providence; and at a glance he went over the whole position–the new
claimant, the gradually expanding claim, the conflict over it, the money
he had locked up in that one doubtful speculation, the sudden diminution
of his resources, perhaps the necessity of selling Brownlows and
bringing Sara back to the old house in the High Street where she was
born. Such a downfall would have been nothing for himself: for him the
old wainscot dining-parlor and all the well-known rooms were agreeable
and full of pleasant associations; but Sara–Then John Brownlow gave
another wide glance over his social firmament, asking himself if there
was any one whom, between this time and that, Sara’s heart might perhaps
incline to, whom she might marry, and solve the difficulty. A few days
before he used to dread and avoid the idea of her marriage. Now all this
rushed upon him in a moment, with the violent impulse of his awakened
fears. By-and-by, however, he came to himself. A woman might be a
soldier’s wife, and might come from the Isle of Man, and might have had
friends in Masterton who were dead, without being Phœbe Thomson.
Perhaps if he had been bold, and listened to the name which was on his
young visitor’s lips, it might have reassured him, and settled the
question; but he had been afraid to do it. At this early stage of his
deliberations he had not a moment’s doubt as to what he would do–what
he must do–at once and without delay, if Phœbe Thomson really
presented herself before him. But it was not his business to seek her
out. And who could say that this was she? The Isle of Man, after all,
was not so small a place, and any one who had come to Masterton to ask
after old Mrs. Thomson would have been referred at once to her executor.
This conviction came slowly upon Mr. Brownlow’s mind as he got over the
first wild thrill of fear. He put his terror away from him gradually and
slowly. When a thought has burst upon the mind at once, and taken
possession of it at a stroke, it is seldom dislodged in the same
complete way. It may cease to be a conviction, but it never ceases to be
an impression. To this state, by degrees, his panic subsided. He no
longer thought it certain that young Powys was Phœbe Thomson’s
representative; but only that such a thing was possible–that he had
something tangible to guard against and watch over. In place of his
quiet every-day life, with all its comforts, an exciting future, a
sudden whirl of possibilities opened before him. But in one year all
this would be over. One year would see him, would see his children, safe
in the fortune they had grown used to, and come to feel their own. Only
one year! There are moments when men are fain to clog the wheels of time
and retard its progress; but there are also moments when, to set the
great clock forward arbitrarily and to hasten the measured beating of
that ceaseless leisurely pendulum, is the desire that goes nearest the
heart. Thus it came to appear to Mr. Brownlow as if it was now a kind of
race between time and fate; for as yet it had not occurred to him to
think of abstract justice nor of natural rights higher than those of any
legal testament. He was thinking only of the letter, of the stipulated
year. He was thinking if that time were past that he would feel himself
his own master. And this sentiment grew and settled in his mind as he
sat alone, and waited for Sara’s carriage–for his child, whom in all
this matter he thought of the most. He was disturbed in the present, and
eager with the eagerness of a boy for the future. It did not even occur
to him that ghosts would arise in that future even more difficult to
exorcise. All his desire in the mean time was–if only this year were
over–if only anyhow a leap could be made through this one interval of
danger. And the sharp and sudden pain he had come through gave him at
the same time a sense of lassitude and exhaustion. Thus Sara’s headache
and her fatigue and fanciful little indisposition were very lucky
accidents for her father. They gave him an excuse for the deeper
compunctious tenderness with which he longed to make up to her for a
possible loss, and occupied both of them, and hid his disturbed air, and
gave him a little stimulus of pleasure when she mended and resumed her
natural chatter. Thus reflection and the fresh evening air, and Sara’s
headache and company, ended by almost curing Mr. Brownlow before he
reached home.