JACK’S LAST TRIAL

The dinner passed over without, so far as the guests were aware, any
special feature in it. Jack might look out of sorts, perhaps, but then
Jack had been out of sorts for some time past. As for Sara, the roses on
her cheeks were so much brighter than usual, that some people went so
far as to suppose she had stooped to the vulgar arts of the toilet. Sir
Charles Motherwell was by her side, and she was talking to him with more
than ordinary vivacity. Mr. Brownlow, for his part, looked just as
usual. People do not trouble themselves to observe whether the head of
the house, when it is a man of his age, looks pale or otherwise. He
talked just as usual; and though, perhaps, it was he who had suffered
most in this crisis, it did not cost him so much now as it did to his
son and daughter. And the new people who came only for the evening, and
knew nothing about it, amused the people who were living at Brownlows,
and had felt in the air some indication of the storm. Every thing went
on well, to the amazement of those who were principally concerned–that
is to say, every thing went on like a dream; the hours and all the
sayings and doings in them, even those which they themselves did and
said, swept on, and carried with them the three who had anxieties so
much deeper at heart. Sara’s cheeks kept burning crimson all the night;
and Mr. Brownlow stood apart and talked heavily with one or other of his
guests; and Jack did the best he could–going so far as to dance, which
was an exercise he did not much enjoy. And the guests called it “a very
pleasant evening,” with more than ordinary sincerity. When the greater
part of those heavy hours had passed, and they began to see the end of
their trial, a servant came into the room and addressed himself to Jack,
who was just then standing with his partner in the pause of a waltz.
Sara, though she was herself flying round the room at the moment, saw
it, and lost breath. Mr. Brownlow saw it from the little inner
drawing-room. It seemed to them that every eye was fixed upon that one
point, but the fact was nobody even noticed it but themselves and Jack’s
partner, who was naturally indignant when he gave up her hand and took
her back to her seat. Somebody wanted to see him, the servant
said–somebody who would not take any answer, but insisted on seeing Mr.
John–somebody from the cottages at the gate. It was Willis himself who
came, and he detracted in no way from the importance of the
communication. His looks were grave enough for a plenipotentiary. His
master, looking at him, felt that Willis must know all; but Willis, to
tell the truth, knew nothing. He felt that something was wrong, and,
with the instinct of a British domestic, recognized that it was his duty
to make the most of it–that was all. Jack went out following him, but
the people who did not know there was any thing significant in his
going, took very little notice of it. The only visible consequence was,
that thenceforward Sara was too tired to dance, and Mr. Brownlow forgot
what he was saying in the middle of a sentence. Simple as the cause
might be, it was alarming to them.

Jack asked the man no questions as he went down stairs; he was himself
wound-up and ready for any thing. Whatever additional hardship or burden
might come, his position could scarcely be made worse. So he was in a
manner indifferent. What could it matter? In the hall he found Mrs.
Swayne standing wrapped up in a big shawl. She was excited, and
fluttered, and breathless, and almost unable to speak, and the shawl
which was thrown over her head showed that she had come in haste. She
put her hand on jack’s arm, and drew him to a side out of hearing of the
servants, and then her message burst forth.

“It’s not what I ever thought I’d come to. It ain’t what I’d do, if e’er
a one of us were in our right senses,” she cried. “But you must come
down to her this very moment. Come along with me, Mr. John. It’s that
dark I’ve struck my foot again’ every tree, and I’ve come that fast I
ain’t got a bit of breath left in my body. Come down to her this very
moment. Come along with me.”

“What is the matter?” said Jack.

“Matter! It’s matter enough,” gasped Mrs. Swayne, “or it never would
have been me to come leaving my man in his rheumatics, and the street
door open, and an old shawl over my head. And there ain’t one minute to
be lost. Get your hat and something to keep you warm, and I’ll tell you
by the way. It’s bitter cold outside.”

In spite of himself Jack hesitated. His pride rose up against the
summons. Pamela had left him and gone over to her mother’s side, and her
mother was no longer a nameless poor woman, but the hard creditor who
was about to ruin him and his. Though he had vowed that he would never
give her up, yet somehow at that moment his pride got the better of his
love. He hesitated, and stood looking at the breathless messenger, who
herself, in her turn, began to look at him with a certain contempt.

“If you ain’t a-coming, Mr. John,” said Mrs. Swayne, “say so–that’s all
as I ask. Not as I would be any way surprised. It’s like men. When you
don’t want ’em, they’ll come fast enough; but when you’re in need, and
they might be of some use–Ugh! that ain’t my way. I wouldn’t be the
wretch as would leave that poor young critter in her trouble, all
alone.”

“All alone–what do you mean?” said Jack, following her to the door, and
snatching his hat as he passed. “How can she be alone? Did she send you?
What trouble is she in? Woman, can’t you tell me what you mean?”

“I won’t be called woman by you, not if you was ten times as grand–not
if you was a duke or a lord,” said Mrs. Swayne, rushing out into the
night. Beyond the circle of the household lights, the gleaming lamp at
the door and lighted windows, the avenue was black as only a path in the
heart of the country can be. The night was intensely dark, the rain
drizzling, and now and then a shower of leaves falling with the rain.
Two or three long strides brought Jack up with the indignant Mrs.
Swayne, who ran and stumbled, but made indifferent progress. He took
hold of her arm, and in his excitement unconsciously gave her a shake.

“Keep by me and I’ll guide you,” he said; “and tell me in a word what is
the matter, and how she happens to be alone.”

Then Mrs. Swayne’s passion gave way to tears. “You’d think yourself
alone,” she cried, “if you was left with one as has had a shock, and
don’t know you no more than Adam, and ne’er a soul in the house, now I’m
gone, but poor old Swayne with his rheumatics, as can’t stir, not to
save his life. You’d think it yourself if it was you. But catch a man
a-forgetting of hisself like that; and the first thought in her mind was
for you. Oh me! oh me! She thought you’d ha’ come like an arrow out of a
bow.”

“A shock?” said Jack vaguely to himself; and then he let go his hold of
Mrs. Swayne’s arm. “I can’t wait for you,” he said; “I can be there
quicker than you.” And he rushed wildly into the darkness, forsaking
her. He was at the gate before the bewildered woman, thus abandoned,
could make two steps in advance. As he dashed past old Betty’s cottage,
he saw inside the lighted window a face he knew, and though he did not
recognize who it was, a certain sense of help at hand came over him.
Another moment and he was in Mrs. Swayne’s cottage, so far recollecting
himself as to tread more softly as he rushed up the dark and narrow
stair. When he opened the door, Pamela gave but one glance round to
greet him. She was alone, as Mrs. Swayne had said. On the bed by which
she stood lay a marble figure, dead to all appearance except for its
eyes. Those eyes moved in the strangest, most terrible way, looking
wildly round and round, now at the ceiling, now at the window, now at
Pamela, imperious and yet agonized. And poor little Pamela, soft girlish
creature, stood desperate, trying to read what they said. She had not a
word to give to Jack–not even a look, except for one brief moment.
“What does she want–what does she want?” she cried. “Oh, mamma! mamma!
will you not _try_ to speak?”

“Is there no one with you?” said Jack. “Have you sent for the doctor?
How long has she been like this? My darling! my poor little darling! Has
the doctor seen her yet?”

“I sent for you,” said Pamela, piteously. “Oh, what does she want? I
think she could speak if she would only try.”

“It is the doctor she wants,” cried Jack. “That is the first thing;” and
he turned and rushed down stairs still more rapidly than he had come up.
The first thing he did was to go across to old Betty’s cottage, and send
the old woman to Pamela’s aid, or at least, if aid was impossible, to
remain with her. There he found Powys, who was waiting till the guests
went away from Brownlows. Him Jack placed in Mrs. Swayne’s parlor, to be
ready to lend any assistance that might be wanted, or to call succor
from the great house if necessary; and then he himself buttoned his coat
and set off on a wild race over hedge and field for the doctor. The
nearest doctor was in Dewsbury, a mile and a half away. Jack knew every
step of the country, and plunged into the unseen by-ways and across the
ploughed fields; in so short a time that Mrs. Swayne had scarcely
reached her own house before he dashed back again in the doctor’s gig.
Then he went into the dark little parlor to wait and take breath. He was
in evening-dress, just as he had been dancing; his light varnished boots
were heavy with ploughed soil and wet earth, his shirt wet with rain,
his whole appearance wild and disheveled. Powys looked at him with the
strange mixture of repugnance and liking that existed between the young
men, and drew forward a chair for him before the dying fire.

“Why did not you let me go?” he said. “I was in better trim for it than
you.”

“You did not know the way,” said Jack; “besides there are things that
nobody can do for one.” Then he added, after a pause, “Her daughter is
going to be my wife.”

“Ah!” said Powys, with a sigh, half of sympathy, half of envy. He did
not think of Jack’s circumstances in any speculative way, but only as
comparing them with his own hard and humble fate, who should never have
a wife, as he said to himself–to whom it was mere presumption, madness,
to think of love at all.

“Yes,” said Jack, putting his wet feet to the fire; and then he too gave
forth a big sigh from his excited breast, and felt the liking grow
stronger than the repugnance, and that he must speak to some one or die.

“It is a pretty mess,” he said; “I thought they were very poor, and it
turns out she has a right to almost all my father has–trust-money that
was left to him if he could not find her; and he was never able to find
her. And, at last, after all was settled between us, she turns up; and
now, I suppose, she’s going to die.”

“I hope not,” said Powys, not knowing what answer to make.

“It’s easy to say you hope not,” said Jack, “but she will–you’ll see
she will. I never saw such a woman. And then what am I to do?–forsake
my poor Pamela, who does not know a word of it, because she is an
heiress, or marry her and rob my father? You may think yours is a hard
case, but I’d like to know what you would do if you were me?”

“I should not forsake her, anyhow,” said Powys, kindling with the
thought.

“And neither shall I, by Jove,” said Jack, getting up in his vehemence.
“What should I care for fathers and mothers, or any fellow in the world?
It’s all that cursed money–that’s what it always is. It comes in your
way and in my way wherever a man turns–not that one can get on without
it either,” said Jack, suddenly sitting down and leaning over the fire
with his face propped up in his two hands.

“Some of us have got to do without it,” said Powys, with a short laugh,
though he did not see any thing amusing in it. Yet there was a certain
bitter drollery in the contrast between his own little salary and the
family he had already to support on it, and Jack’s difficulties at
finding that his Cinderella had turned into a fairy princess. Jack gave
a hasty glance at him, as if fearing that he himself was being laughed
at. But poor Powys had a sigh coming so close after his laugh that it
was impossible to suspect him of mockery. Jack sighed too, for company.
His heart was opened; and the chance of talking to any body was a
godsend to him in that moment of suspense.

“Were you to have been with us this evening?” he said. “Why did not you
come? My father always likes to see you.”

“He does not care to see me now,” said Powys, with a little bitterness;
“I don’t know why. I went up to carry him some papers, against my will.
He took me to your house as first against my own judgment. It would have
been better for me I had walked over a precipice or been struck down
like the poor lady up stairs.”

“No,” said Jack, pitying, and yet there was a touch of condescension in
his voice. “Don’t say so–not so bad as that. A man may make a mistake,
and yet it need not kill him. There’s the doctor–I must hear what he
has to say.”

The doctor came in looking very grave. He said there were signs of some
terrible mental tumult and shock she had received; that all the symptoms
were of the worst kind, and that he had no hope whatever for her life.
She might recover her faculties and be able to speak; but it was almost
certain she must die. This was the verdict pronounced upon Mrs. Preston
as the carriage lamps of the departing guests began to gleam down the
avenue, and old Betty rushed across to open the gates, and the horses
came prancing out into the road. Pamela caught a momentary glimpse of
them as she moved about the room, and it suddenly occurred to her to
remember her own childish delight at the sight when she first came. And
oh, how many things had happened since then! And this last of all which
she understood least. She was sick with terror and wonder, and her head
ached and her heart throbbed. They were her mother’s eyes which looked
at her so, and yet she was afraid of them. How was she ever to live out
the endless night?

It was a dreadful night for more people than Pamela. Powys went up to
the great house very shortly after to carry the news to Mr. Brownlow,
who was so much overcome by it that he shivered and trembled and looked
for the moment like a feeble old man. He sank down into his chair, and
could not speak at first. “God forgive me,” he said when he had
recovered himself. “I am afraid I had ill thoughts of her–very ill
thoughts in my head. Sara, you heard all–was I harsh to her? It could
not be any thing I said?”

“No, papa,” said Sara, trembling, and she came to him and drew his head
for a moment to her young, tremulous, courageous breast. And Powys stood
looking on with a pang in his heart. He did not understand what all this
meant, but he knew that she was his and yet could not be his. He dared
not go and console her as he had done in his madness when they were
alone.

Mr. Brownlow would not go to bed; he sat and watched, and sent for news
through the whole long night. And Powys, who knew only by Jack’s short
and incoherent story what important issues were involved, served him
faithfully as his messenger coming and going. The thoughts that arose in
Mr. Brownlow’s mind were not to be described. It was not possible that
compunction such as that which moved him at first could be his only
feeling. As the hours went on, a certain strange mixture of satisfaction
and reproach against Providence came into his mind. He said Providence
in his mind, being afraid and ashamed to say God. If Providence was
about to remove this obstacle out of his way, it would seem but fitting
and natural; but why, then why, when it was to be, not have done it a
few days sooner? Two days sooner?–that would have made all the
difference. Now the evil she had done would not die with her, though it
might be lessened. In these unconscious inarticulate thoughts, which
came by no will of his, which haunted him indeed against his will, there
rose a certain upbraiding against the tardy fate. It was too late. The
harm was done. As it was, it seemed natural that his enemy should be
taken out of his way, for Providence had ever been very kind to him–but
why should it be this one day too late?

Jack sat down stairs in Mrs. Swayne’s parlor all the night. The fire
went out, and he had not the heart to have it lighted: one miserable
candle burned dully in the chill air. Now and then Powys came in from
the darkness without, glowing from his rapid walk; sometimes Mrs. Swayne
came creaking down stairs to tell him there was no change; once or twice
he himself stole up to see the same awful sight. Poor Pamela, for her
part, sat by the bedside half stupefied by her vigil. She had not spirit
enough left to give one answering look to her lover. Her brain was
racking with devices to make out what her mother meant. She kept talking
to her, pleading with her, entreating–oh, if she would but try to
speak! and ever in desperation making another and another effort to get
at her meaning. Jack could not bear the sight. The misery, and darkness,
and suspense down stairs were less dreadful at least than this. Even the
doctor, though he knew nothing of what lay below, had been apparently
excited by the external aspect of affairs, and came again before
day-break to see if any change were perceptible. It was that hour of all
others most chilling and miserable; that hour which every watcher knows,
just before dawn, when the darkness seems more intense, the cold more
keen, the night more lingering and wretched than at any other moment.
Jack in his damp and thin dress walked shivering about the little black
parlor, unable to keep still.

She might die and make no sign; and if she did so, was it possible still
to ignore all that had happened, and to bestow her just heritage on
Pamela only under cover as his wife? This was the question that racked
him as he waited and listened; but when the doctor went up just before
day-break a commotion was heard in the room above. Jack stood still for
a moment holding his breath, and then he rushed up stairs. Before he got
into the room there arose suddenly a hoarse voice, which was scarcely
intelligible. It was Mrs. Preston who was speaking. “What was it? what
was it?” she was crying wildly. “What did I tell you, child?” and then,
as he opened the door, a great outcry filled the air. “Oh, my God, I’ve
forgotten–I’ve forgotten!” cried the dying woman. She was sitting up in
her bed in a last wild rally of all her powers. Motion and speech had
come back to her. She was propping herself up on her two thin arms,
thrusting herself forward with a strained and excessive muscular action,
such as extreme weakness sometimes is equal to. As she looked round
wildly with the same eager impotent look that had wrung the beholders’
hearts while she was speechless, her eye fell on Jack, who was standing
at the door. She gave a sudden shriek of mingled triumph and entreaty.
“You can tell them,” she said–“you can tell me–come and tell me–tell
me! Pamela, there is one that knows.”

“Oh, mamma, I don’t want to hear,” cried Pamela; “oh, lie down and take
what the doctor says; oh, mamma, mamma, if you care for me! Don’t sit up
and wear out your strength, and break my heart.”

“It’s for you–it’s all for you!” cried the sufferer; and she moved the
hands on which she was supporting herself, and threw forward her ghastly
head, upon which Death itself seemed to have set its mark. “I’ve no time
to lose–I’m dying, and I’ve forgotten it all. Oh, my God, to think I
should forget! Come here, if you are a man, and tell me what it was!”

Jack stepped forward like a man in a dream. He saw that she might fall
and die the next moment; her worn bony arms began to tremble, her head
fell forward, her eyes staring at him seemed to loosen in their sockets.
Perhaps she had but half an hour longer to live. The strength of death
was in her no less than its awful weakness. “Tell me,” she repeated, in
a kind of babble, as if she could not stop. Pamela, who never thought
nor questioned what her mother’s real meaning was, kept trying, with
tears and all her soft force, to lay her down on the pillows; and the
doctor, who thought her raving, stood by and looked on with a calm
professional eye, attributing all her excitement to the delirium of
death. In the midst of this preoccupied group Jack stood forward, held
by her eye. An unspeakable struggle was going on in his mind. Nobody
believed there was any meaning in her words. Was it he that must give
them a meaning, and furnish forth the testimony that was needed against
himself? It was but to be silent, that was all, and no one would be the
wiser. Mrs. Swayne, too, was in the room, curious but unsuspicious. They
all thought it was she who was “wandering,” and not that he had any
thing to tell.

Then once more she raised her voice, which grew harsher and weaker every
moment. “I am dying,” she cried; “if you will not tell me I will speak
to God. I will speak to him–about it–he–will send word–somehow. Oh
my God, tell me–tell me–what was it?–before I die.”

Then they all looked at him, not with any real suspicion, but wondering.
Jack was as pale almost as the dying creature who thus appealed to him.
“I will tell you,” he said, in a broken voice. “It was about money. I
can’t speak about legacies and interest here. I will speak of
it–when–you are better. I will see–that she has her rights.”

“Money!” cried Mrs. Preston, catching at the word–“money–my mother’s
money–that is what it was. A fortune, Pamela! and you’ll have
friends–plenty of friends when I’m gone. Pamela, Pamela, it’s all for
you.”

Then she fell back rigid, not yielding, but conquered; for a moment it
seemed as if some dreadful fit was coming on; but presently she relapsed
into the state in which she had been before–dumb, rigid, motionless,
with a frame of ice, and two eyes of fire. Jack staggered out of the
room, broken and worn out; the very doctor, when he followed, begged for
wine, and swallowed it eagerly. It was more than even his professional
nerves could bear.

“She ought to have died then,” he said; “by all sort of rules she ought
to have died; but I don’t see much difference in her state now; she
might go on like that for days–no one can say.”

Jack was not able to make any answer; he was worn out as if with hard
work; his forehead was damp with exhaustion; he too gulped down some of
the wine Mrs. Swayne brought them, but he had no strength to make any
reply.

“Mr. Brownlow, let me advise you to go home,” said the doctor; “no one
can do any good here. You must make the young lady lie down, Mrs.
Swayne. There will be no immediate change, and there is nothing to be
done but to watch her. If she should recover consciousness again, don’t
cross her in any thing: give her the drops if possible, and
watch–that’s all that can be done. I shall come back in the course of
the day.”

And in the grey dawning Jack too went home. He was changed; conflict and
doubt had gone out of him. In their place a sombre cloud seemed to have
taken him up. It was justice, remorseless and uncompromising, that thus
overshadowed him. Expediency was not to be his guide–not though it
should be a thousand times better, wiser, more desirable, than any other
course of action. It was not what was best that had now to be
considered, but only what was right. It never occurred to him that any
farther struggle could be made. He felt himself no longer Pamela’s
betrothed lover, whose natural place was to defend and protect her, but
her legal guardian and adviser, bound to consider her interests and make
the best of every thing; the champion, not of herself, but of her
fortune–that fortune which seemed to step between and separate them
forever. When he was half-way up the avenue it occurred to him that he
had forgotten Powys, and then he went back again to look for him. He had
grown as a brother to him during this long night. Powys, however, was
gone. Before Jack left the house he had set off for Masterton with the
instinct of a man who has his daily work to do, and can not indulge in
late hours. Poor fellow! Jack thought in his heart. It was hard upon him
to be sacrificed to Mr. Brownlow’s freak and Sara’s vanity. But though
he was himself likely to be a fellow-sufferer, it did not occur to Jack
to intercede for Powys, or even to imagine that now he need not be
sacrificed. Such an idea never entered into his head. Every thing was
quiet in Brownlows when he went home. Mr. Brownlow had been persuaded to
go to his room, and except the weary and reproachful servant who
admitted Jack, there was nobody to be seen. He went up to his own room
in the cold early day-light, passing by the doors of his visitors with a
certain bitterness, and at the same time contempt. He was scornful of
them for their ignorance, for their indifference, for their faculty of
being amused and seeing no deeper. A parcel of fools! he said to
himself; and yet he knew very well they were not fools, and was more
thankful than he could express that their thoughts were directed to
other matters, and that they were as yet unsuspicious of the real state
of affairs. Every body was quite unsuspicious, even the people who
surrounded Pamela. They saw something was amiss, but they had no idea
what it was. Only himself, in short, knew to its full extent the trouble
which had overwhelmed him. Only he knew that it was his hard fate to be
his father’s adversary, and the legal adviser of his betrothed bride;
separated from the one by his opposition, from the other by his
guardianship. He would win the money away from his own flesh and blood,
and he would lose them in doing so; he would win it for his love, and in
the act he would lose Pamela. Neither son nor lover henceforward,
neither happy and prosperous in taking his own will, nor beloved and
cherished in standing by those who belonged to him. He would establish
Pamela’s rights, and secure her in her fortune, but never could he share
that fortune. It was an inexorable fate which had overtaken him. Just as
Brutus, but with no praise for being just; this was to be his destiny.
Jack flung himself listlessly on his bed, and turned his face from the
light. It was a cruel fate.

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