AN UNLOOKED-FOR VISITOR

Powys was proud, and his pride was up in arms. He slept little that
night, and while he sat and brooded over it all, the hopelessness and
folly of his hope struck him with tenfold distinctness. Early next
morning, before any one was up, he came down the great silent staircase,
and left the house in the morning sunshine. The distance to Masterton
was nothing to him. It was the second time he had left the house with
despair in his heart. It would be the last time, he said to himself as
he paused to look up at the closed windows; he would never suffer
himself to be deluded–never be led away by deceptive hopes again; and
he went away, not without bitterness, yet with a certain stern sense of
the inevitable which calmed down his passion. Whenever he had been in
his right senses, he had felt that this must be the end; and the thing
for him now was to bear it with such courage and steadiness as he could
muster to face the emergency. It was all over at least. There were no
intermediary tortures to go through, and there was always some comfort
in that.

His absence was not taken any notice of at the breakfast-table, though
Sara gave many a wondering glance at the door, and had a puzzled,
half-irritated look upon her face, which some of her friends perceived,
though her father did not observe it. He, for his part, came down
radiant. He looked weary, and explained that he had not slept very well;
but he had never been in more genial spirits, never more affectionate or
full of schemes for every body’s pleasure. He called Jack apart, to tell
him that, after looking over matters, he found he could let him have the
hunter he wanted, a horse upon which his heart was set. When they were
all talking at the table in the usual morning flutter of letters and
mutual bits of news, Mr. Brownlow intimated that he had thoughts of
taking Sara to Italy, where she had so long desired to go; “making up a
party, and enjoying ourselves,” he said. Sara looked up with a gleam of
delight, but her eyes were immediately after diverted to the door, where
somebody was coming in–somebody, but not the person she was looking
for. As for Jack, he received the intimation of his father’s liberality
in perplexed silence; for if he was to marry, and sink into the position
of a clerk in Masterton, hunters would be little in his way. But their
father was too much absorbed in his own satisfaction to remark
particularly how they both took his proposed kindness. He was
overflowing to every body. Though he was always kind, that morning he
was kinder than ever; and the whole party brightened up under his
influence, notwithstanding Jack’s perplexity, and Sara’s wondering
impatient glances at the door. Nobody asked what had become of the
stranger. Mr. Brownlow’s guests were free to come to breakfast when they
liked, and no notice was taken of the defaulters. The meal, however, was
so merry and friendly, that every body sat longer over it than usual.
Several of the visitors were going away, and the sportsmen had laid
aside their guns for the day to join the ladies in an excursion. There
was plenty of time for every thing; pleasant bustle, pleasant idleness,
no “wretched business,” as Sara said, to quicken their steps; and she
was, perhaps, the only one in the party who was ill at ease. She could
not make out how it was that Powys did not come. She sat and joined with
forced gayety in the general conversation, and she had not courage to
ask frankly what had become of him. When they all began at last to
disperse from the table, she made one feeble effort to satisfy herself.
“Mr. Powys has never come down to breakfast,” she said to Jack, avoiding
his eye; “had not you better see if there is any reason?”

“If he is ill, perhaps, poor dear?” said Jack, with scorn. “Don’t be
afraid–probably he went out early; he is not the sort of fellow to fall
ill.”

“Probably some of you have insulted him!” said Sara, hotly, under her
breath; but either Jack did not or would not hear. And she could not
trust herself to look up in the face of the assembled company and ask.
So she had to get up with all the rest, and go reluctantly away from the
table, with a certain sense of impending misfortune upon her. A few
minutes after, when she was sent for to go to her father in the library,
Sara’s courage failed her altogether. She felt he must have something
important to say to her, something that could not be postponed. And her
heart beat loudly as she went to him. When she entered the room Mr.
Brownlow came forward to meet her. It struck her for the first time as
he advanced that his face had changed; something that had been weighing
upon him had passed away. The lines of his mouth had relaxed and
softened; he was like what he used to be. It was almost the first time
she fully realized that for some time past he had not been like himself.
He came forward, and before she had fully mastered her first impression,
took her into his arms.

“My dear child,” he said, “I have sent for you to tell you that a great
burden that has been upon my mind for some time has just been taken off.
You have been very good to me, Sara, very patient and obedient and
sweet; and though I never told you about it in so many words, I want you
to be the first to know that it has passed away.”

“Thank you, papa,” said Sara, looking wistfully in his face. “I am sure
I am very glad, though I don’t know what you mean. Is it any thing
about–? Am I to know what it was?” And she stopped, standing so close
with his arm round her, and gave him an appealing look–a look that
asked far more than her words–that seemed even to see into him, and
divine; but that could not be.

“It is not worth while now,” he said, smoothing her hair with his hand.
“It is all over; and, my darling, I want you to know also that I set you
free.”

“Set me free?” said Sara, in a whisper; and in spite of herself she
turned very pale.

“Yes, Sara, quite free. I ask no sacrifice of you now,” said Mr.
Brownlow, pressing her close with his arm. “Forgive me that I ever
thought of it. Even at the worst, you know I told you to consult your
own heart; and now you are free, quite free. All that is at an end.”

“All what?” asked Sara, under her breath; and she turned her head away
from him, resisting the effort he made to look at her. “What is it you
set me free from?” she continued, in a petulant tone. “If you don’t tell
me in words, how am I to know?”

Mr. Brownlow was startled and checked in his effusiveness, but he could
not be angry with her at such a moment. “Hush,” he said, still smoothing
her pretty hair, “we have never had many words about it. It is all at an
end. I thought it would be a relief to you to hear.”

“To hear what?” cried the girl, sharply, with her head averted; and
then, to her father’s utter consternation, she withdrew as far as she
could from his arm, and suddenly burst into tears.

Mr. Brownlow was totally taken by surprise. He had not been able to read
what was going on in his daughter’s heart. He could not believe now that
she understood him. He put his hand upon her arm and drew her back. “You
mistake me, my darling,” he said; “I mean that you are quite free,
Sara–quite free. It was wrong of me to ask any promise from you, and it
was foolish of you to give it. But Providence, thank God, has settled
that. It is all over. There is no more necessity. Can’t you forgive me?
You have not suffered so much from it as I have done. Before I could
have come to the point of sacrificing you–”

“Sacrificing _me_!” cried Sara, suddenly, flashing back upon him in a
storm of passion and indignation, her cheeks scorching yet wet with
tears, her big eyes swimming. “Is that all you think of? You had a right
to sacrifice me if you liked–nobody would have said a word. They did it
in the Bible. You might have cut me into little pieces if you liked. But
oh, what right had you, how dared you to make a sacrifice of _him_?”

“_Him!_” cried Mr. Brownlow, and he took a step back in consternation
and gazed at his child, who was transfigured, and a different creature.
Her cheeks blazed under her tears, but she did not shrink. Weeping,
blushing, wounded, ashamed, she still confronted him in the strength of
some new feeling of which he had never dreamed.

“You never say a word about him!” cried Sara. “You speak of me, and you
had a right to do whatever you like with me; but it is him whom you have
sacrificed. He never would have thought of it but for you. He never
would have come back after _that_ time but for you. And then you expect
me to think only of myself, and to be glad when you say I am free! How
can I be free? I led him on and made him speak when he knew better. Oh,
papa, you are cruel, cruel! He was doing you no harm, and you have made
him wretched; and now you think it doesn’t matter; but that is not the
way with me!”

“Sara, are you mad?” cried Mr. Brownlow in his dismay; but Sara made him
no answer. She sat down on the nearest chair, and turning round away
from him, leaned her arms on the back of it, and put down her head on
her arms. He could see that she was crying, but that was all; and
nothing he could say, neither consolations, nor excuses, nor reproofs,
would induce her to raise her head. It was the first quarrel she had
ever had with the father who had been father and mother both to her; and
the acuteness of her first disappointment, the first cross in her
pleasant life, the unexpected humiliating end of her first dreams,
roused a wild rebellion in her heart. She was wroth, and her heart was
sore, and outraged. When he was called away by Willis about some
business, he left her there, still twisted round upon her chair, with
her face upon her folded arms, spending her very soul in tears. But the
moment he was gone she sprang up and fled to the shelter of her own
room. “They shall find that it is not the way with me!” she said to
herself, and gave herself up willfully to thoughts of the banished lover
who had been treated so cruelly. On that day at least, Sara avenged poor
Powys’s wrongs upon the company in general. She had a headache, and
could not join in their excursion. And her eyes were still red with
crying when next she was seen down stairs. Mr. Brownlow tried to
persuade himself it was too violent to last, and thought it prudent to
take no more notice, but was very obsequious and conciliatory all the
evening to his naughty child. Even when it was thus brought before him,
he did not make much account of the sacrifice of Powys. And he thought
Sara would come round and see things by and by in their true light. But
all the same the shock had a great effect upon him, and damped him
strangely in the first effusion of his joy.

But he was kind, kinder to every body in his gratitude to Providence.
Except that he had no pity for Powys, who seemed to him to have been all
this time a kind of impostor, his good fortune softened his heart to
every other creature. When he met Pamela on the road, though Pamela was
the one other individual in the world with whom Jack’s father was not in
perfect charity, he yet stopped kindly to speak to her. “I hope your
mother has not gone upon a long journey. I hope she is coming back,” he
said in a fatherly way. “She should not have left you by yourself
alone.”

“It was on business,” said Pamela, not daring to lift her eyes. “She
said she would be soon back.”

“Then you must take great care of yourself while she is away,” Mr.
Brownlow said, and took off his hat as he left her, with the courtesy
which was natural to him. He was so kind to every body, and that day in
particular he looked after the pretty creature with a pang of
compunction. He did not care much for Powys, but he was sorry for
Pamela. “Poor little thing!” he said to himself–for while he said it he
thought of launching Jack, as it was Jack’s ambition to be launched,
upon public life, getting him into the House of Commons, sending him out
to the world, where he would soon forget his humble little love. Mr.
Brownlow felt that this was what would happen, and his heart for the
moment ached over poor Pamela. She was so pretty, and soft, and young,
and then she reminded him–though of whom he could not quite say.

Thus the day went on; and the next day Mr. Brownlow went to the office,
where every thing was as usual. He saw by his first glance that Powys
was at his desk, and he was pleased, though he took no notice. Perhaps a
certain unacknowledged compunction, after all, was in his mind. He even
sent for Mr. Wrinkell and consulted him as to the fitness of the junior
clerk for a more responsible post. Mr. Wrinkell was a cautious man, but
he could not conceal a certain favoritism. “Ever since that first little
cloud that passed over him, he has been worth any two in the office,” he
said–“any two, sir; but I don’t think he is happy in his mind.”

“Not happy?” said Mr. Brownlow; “but you know, Wrinkell, we can not be
expected to remedy that.”

“No, of course not,” said Mr. Wrinkell; “it may be only seriousness, and
then it will be all the better for him; but if it is not that, it is
something that has gone wrong. At his age a cross in some fancy is
enough sometimes–not that I have any ground for saying so; but still I
think sometimes when I look at him that some little affair of _that_
description may have gone wrong.”

“It is possible enough,” said Mr. Brownlow, with a smile, which was
somewhat grim; “fortunately that sort of thing don’t kill.”

“N-no,” said Mr. Wrinkell, gravely; but he did not say anymore, and his
employer did not feel more comfortable after he was gone; and Powys was
promoted accordingly, and did his business with a certain sternness,
never moving, never looking round when Mr. Brownlow came into the
office, taking no notice of him; till the lawyer, who had come to have a
certain fondness for the young man, felt hurt and vexed, he could not
have told why. He was glad to see him there–glad he was too manful and
stouthearted to have disappeared and abandoned his work; but he would
have felt grateful and indebted to him had he once raised his head and
seemed conscious of his presence. Powys, however, was no more than
human, and there was a limit to his powers. He was busy with his work,
but yet the sense of his grievance was full in his mind. He was saying
to himself, with less vehemence but more steadiness, what Sara had said.
He never would have thought of it but for Mr. Brownlow–never would have
gone back after _that_ time but for him; and his heart was sore, and he
could not forgive him like a Christian–not the first day.

However they had a cheerful evening at Brownlows that night. There were
more reasons than one why it should be a night of triumph for the master
of the house. His terrors had all died out of his mind. The cloud that
had so long overshadowed him had vanished, and _it was the last day_!
Nobody knew it but himself; doubtless nobody was thinking of any special
crisis. Mr. Brownlow went, he scarcely knew from what feeling, in a kind
of half-conscious bravado, to see old Mrs. Fennell, and found her still
raving of something which seemed to him no longer alarming, but the
merest idiocy. He was so genial and charitable that he even thought of
Nancy and her troubles, and told her she must get a nurse to help her,
and then she could be free to go and see her friends. “For I think you
told me you had some friends,” Mr. Brownlow said, with an amiability
that cowed Nancy, and made her tremble. Nancy Christian! When he heard
her mistress call her, he suddenly recollected the other name which he
had seen so lately, and came back to ask her about a Mary Christian of
the Isle of Man, and got certain particulars which were startling to
him. Nancy could tell him who she was. She was a farmer’s daughter
related to the Fennells, and had married “a gentleman’s son.” The
information gave Mr. Brownlow a curious shock, but he was a good deal
exhausted with various emotions, and did not feel that much. So he went
home, carrying a present for Sara–a pretty locket–though she had too
many of such trinkets already. He meant to tell her it was an
anniversary, though not what anniversary it was. And he took his
check-book and wrote a check for a large amount for the chief charities
in Masterton, but did not tear it out, leaving it there locked up with
the book till to-morrow, for it was late, and the banks were shut. If
any poor supplicant had come to him that day with a petition, right or
wrong its prayer would have been granted. Mr. Brownlow had received a
great deliverance from God–so he phrased it–and it was but his simple
duty to deliver others if possible in sign of his gratitude. All but
young Powys, whom he had deluded, and who had deluded him; all but
Phœbe Thomson, who was just about to be consigned to oblivion, and
about whom and whose fortunes henceforward no soul would have any
inducement to care.

Sara, too, had softened a little out of that first rebellion which Mr.
Brownlow knew could not last. She was not particularly cordial to her
father, but still she wore the locket he had given her in sign of amity,
and exerted herself at dinner to amuse the guests. Fresh people had
arrived that day, and the house was very full–so full, that Mr.
Brownlow had no chance of a moment’s conversation with his children,
except by positively detaining them after every body was gone, as Jack
had done on the night of Powys’s arrival. He took this step, though it
was a very decided one, for he felt it necessary that some clear
understanding should be come to. And he had such bribes to offer them.
After every body else had retired, Jack and Sara came to him in the
library. This room, which a little while ago had been the least
interesting in the house, was gradually collecting associations round
it, and becoming the scene of all the most important incidents in this
eventful period of the family life. Jack came in half careless, half
anxious, thinking something might be about to be said about his personal
affairs, yet feeling that his father had no particular right to
interfere, and no power to decide. And Sara was sulky. It is an ugly
word, but it was the actual state of the case. She was injured, and sore
in her heart, and yet she was too young and too much accustomed to her
own way to consider the matter desperate, or to have reached the dignity
of despair. So she was only sullen, offended, disposed to make herself
disagreeable. It was not a promising audience whom Mr. Brownlow thus
received with smiles in his own room. It was only about eleven o’clock,
his impatience having hastened the hour of general separation; and the
young people were not perfectly pleased with _that_, any more than with
his other arrangements. Both the lamps in the library were lighted, and
there was a fire burning. The room, too, seemed to have brightened up.
Mr. Brownlow put Sara into one of the big chairs, with a tenderness
which almost overcame her, and himself took up an Englishman’s favorite
position on the hearth.

“I want to speak to you both,” he said. He was eager, and yet there was
a certain embarrassment in his tone. “This is an important night in my
life. I can’t enter into particulars–indeed there is no room for
them–but I have been waiting for this night to speak seriously to you
both. Jack, I doubt whether you will ever do much at the business. I
should have liked, had you given your mind to it, to keep it up; for a
business like mine is a capital backing to a fortune, and without it you
can’t hope to be rich–not rich beyond competence, you know. However, it
does not seem to me, I confess, that business, of our kind at least, is
your turn.”

“I was not aware I had been unsatisfactory, sir,” said Jack. “I don’t
think I have been doing worse than usual–”

“That is not what I mean,” said Mr. Brownlow. “I mean you are better
adapted for something else. I wrote to my old friend Lord Dewsbury about
you to-day. If any thing should turn up in the way he once proposed, I
should not mind releasing you altogether from the office–and increasing
your allowance. It could not be a great deal, recollect; but still if
that is what you would really give your mind to–I should see that you
had enough to keep your place.”

Jack’s eyes had gradually brightened as his father proceeded. Now he
made a step forward, and a gleam of delight came to his face. “Do you
really mean it?” he cried; “it is awfully good of you. Of course I
should give my mind to it. It is what I most care for in the
world–except–the business–” Jack paused, and other things besides the
business came into his mind. “If you are making a sacrifice to please
me–” he began slowly.

“We have all to make sacrifices,” said Mr. Brownlow. “A few days ago I
thought I should have had to make a sacrifice of a very different kind.
Providence has been good to me, and now I should like to do the best for
my children. There are only two of you,” said Mr. Brownlow, softening.
“It would be hard if I did not do all I could to make the best of your
lives.”

And then there was a pause. He meant what he said, and he had always
been a good father, and they loved him dearly. But at this moment,
though he was offering to his son the realization of his dreams, they
both distrusted him, and he felt it. They looked at him askance, these
two young creatures who owed every thing to him. They were doubtful of
his great offers. They thought he was attempting to bribe them, beguile
them out of the desire of their hearts. And he stood looking at them,
feeling in his own heart that he was not natural but plausible and
conciliatory, thinking of their good, no doubt, but also of his own
will. He felt this, but still he was angry that they should feel it. And
it was with still more conscious embarrassment that he began again.

“The time has come in my own life when I am ready to make a change,” he
said. “I want a little rest. I want to go away and see you enjoy
yourselves, and take a holiday before I die. I can afford it after
working so long. I want to take you to Italy, my darling, where you have
so long wanted to go; but I should like to establish things on a new
footing first. I should make some arrangement about the business;
unless, indeed, Jack has changed his ideas. Public life is very
uncertain. If you think,” said Mr. Brownlow, not without a certain tinge
of derision in his tone, “that you would rather be Brownlow of
Masterton, with a safe, long-established hereditary connection to fall
back upon, it is not for me to precipitate your decision. You can take
time and think over what I say.”

“There is no occasion for taking time to think,” said Jack, with a
little irritation. But there he stopped. It was getting toward midnight;
the house was quiet; everything was still, except the wind sighing
outside among the falling leaves. Sara, who was the least occupied of
the three, had thought she heard the sound of wheels in the avenue, but
it was so unlikely at that time of the night that she concluded it must
be only the wind. As they all stood there, however, silent, the quiet
was suddenly broken. All at once, into the midst of their conversation,
came the sound of the great house-bell, rung violently. It made them all
start, so unexpected was the sound, and so perfect was the stillness. At
that hour who could be coming to disturb them? The bell was unusually
large and loud, and the sound of it echoing down into the bowels, as it
were, of the silent house, was startling enough. And then there was the
sound of a voice outside. The library was at the back of the house;
but still, when their attention was thus violently aroused, they
could hear that there was a voice. And the bell rang again
loudly–imperiously–wildly. Jack was the first to move. “Willis must
be asleep,” he said. “But who on earth can it be?” and he hastened
toward the door, to give the untimely visitor entrance. But his father
called him back.

“I hear Willis moving,” he said; “never mind. It must be somebody by the
last train from town. Did you ask any one? There is just time to have
driven over from the last train.”

“It must be some telegram,” said Jack. “I expect nobody this week,” and
they all stood and waited; Sara, too, having risen from her chair. The
young people were a little disturbed, though they feared nothing; and
Mr. Brownlow looked at them tenderly, like a man who had nothing to
fear.

“Happily we are all here,” he said. “If it is a telegram, it can only be
about business.” He stood leaning against the mantle-piece, with his
eyes fixed on the door. There was a flutter at his heart somehow, but he
did not feel that he was afraid. And they could hear Willis fumbling
over the door, and an impatient voice outside. Whatever it was, it was
very urgent, and Jack, growing anxious in spite of himself, would have
gone to see. But again his father called him back. Something chill and
terrible was stealing over Mr. Brownlow; he was growing pale–he was
hoarse when he spoke. But he neither moved, nor would he let his son
move, and stood propping himself up, with a livid countenance, and
gazing at the door.

When it opened they all started, and Mr. Brownlow himself gave a hoarse
cry. It was not a telegram, nor was it a stranger. It was a figure they
were well used to see, and with which they had no tragic associations.
She came in like a ghost, black, pale, and swift, in a passion of
eagerness, with a large old silver watch in her hand. “I am not too
late,” she said, with a gasp, and held it up close to Mr. Brownlow’s
face. And then she stood still and looked at him, and he knew it all if
she had not said, another word. It was Pamela’s mother, the woman whom,
two days before, he had helped into the carrier’s cart at his own gate.