LUNCHEON

It was like a dream to the young Canadian when he followed the master of
the house into the dining-room;–not that _that_, or any other social
privilege, would have struck the youth with astonishment or exultation
as it would have done a young man from Masterton: but because he had
just behaved so ungratefully and ungraciously, and had no right to any
such recompense. He had heard enough in the office about Brownlows to
know that it was an unprecedented honor that was being paid him; but it
was the coals of fire thus heaped upon his head which he principally
felt. Sara was already at the head of the table in all that perfection
of dainty apparel which dazzles the eyes of people unused to it.
Naturally the stranger knew nothing about any one particular of her
dress, but he felt without knowing how, the difference between that
costly simplicity and all the finery of the women he was accustomed to
see. It was a different sphere and atmosphere altogether from any he had
ever entered; and the only advantage he had over any of his
fellow-clerks who might have been introduced in the same way was, that
he had mastered the first grand rule of good-breeding, and had forgotten
himself. He had no time to think how he ought to behave in his own
person. His mind was too much occupied by the novelty of the sphere into
which he was thus suddenly brought. Sara inclined her head graciously as
he was brought in, and was not surprised; but as for Mr. Hardcastle,
whose seat was just opposite that of young Powys, words could not
express his consternation. One of the clerks! Mr. Brownlow the solicitor
was not such a great man himself that he should feel justified in
introducing his clerks at his table; and after that, what next? A rapid
calculation passed through Mr. Hardcastle’s mind as he stared at the
new-comer. If this sort of thing was to go on, it would have to be
looked to. If Mr. Brownlow thought it right for Sara, he certainly
should not think it right for his Fanny. Jack Brownlow himself, with
Brownlows perhaps, and at least a large share of his father’s fortune,
was not to be despised; but the clerks! The Rector even felt himself
injured–though to be sure, young Powys or any other clerk could not
have dreamed of paying addresses to him. And it must be admitted that
the conversation was not lively at table. Mr. Brownlow was embarrassed
as knowing his own intentions, which, of course, nobody else did. Mr.
Hardcastle was astonished and partially affronted. And Powys kept
silence. Thus there was only Sara to keep up a little appearance of
animation at the table. It is at such moments that the true superiority
of womankind really shows itself. She was not embarrassed–the social
difference which, as she thought, existed between her and her father’s
clerk was so great and complete that Sara felt herself as fully at
liberty to be gracious to him, as if he had been his own mother or
sister. “If Mr. Powys walked all the way he must want his luncheon,
papa,” she said. “Don’t you think it is a pretty road? Of course it is
not grand like your scenery in Canada. We don’t have any Niagaras in
England; but it is pleasant, don’t you think?”

“It is very pleasant,” said young Powys; “but there are more things in
Canada than Niagara.”

“I suppose so,” said Sara, who was rather of opinion that he ought to
have been much flattered by her allusion to Canada; “and there are
prettier places in England than Dewsbury–but still people who belong to
it are fond of it all the same. Mr. Hardcastle, this is the dish you are
so fond of–are you ill, like papa, that you don’t eat to-day?”

“Not ill, my dear,” said the Rector, with meaning–“only like your papa,
a little out of sorts.”

“I don’t know why people should be out of sorts who have every thing
they can possibly want,” said Sara. “I think it is wicked both of papa
and you. If you were poor men in the village, with not enough for your
children to eat, you would know better than to be out of sorts. I am
sure it would do us all a great deal of good if we were suddenly
ruined,” the young woman continued, looking her father, as it happened,
full in the face. Of course she did not mean any thing. It came into her
head all at once to say this, and she said it; but equally of course it
fell with a very different significance on her father’s ears. He changed
color in spite of himself–he dropped on his plate a morsel he was
carrying to his mouth. A sick sensation came over him. Sara did not know
very much about the foundation of his fortune, but still she knew
something; and she was just as likely as not to let fall some word which
would throw final illumination upon the mind of the young stranger. Mr.
Brownlow smiled a sickly sort of smile at her from the other end of the
table.

“Don’t use such strong language,” he said. “Being ruined means with Sara
going to live in a cottage covered with roses, and taking care of one’s
aged father; but, my darling, your father is not yet old enough to give
in to being ruined, even should such a chance happen to us. So you must
make up your mind to do without the cottage. The roses you can have, as
many as you like.”

“Sara means by ruin, that is to say,” said the Rector, “something rather
better than the best that I have been able to struggle into, and nothing
to do for it. I should accept her ruin with all my heart.”

“You are laughing at me,” said Sara, “both of you. Fanny would know if
she were here. You understand, don’t you, Mr. Powys? What do I care for
cottages or roses? but if one were suddenly brought face to face with
the realities of life–”

“You have got that out of a book, Sara,” said the Rector.

“And if I have, Mr. Hardcastle?” said Sara. “I hope some books are true.
I know what I mean, whether you know it or not. And so does Mr. Powys,”
she added, suddenly meeting the stranger’s eye.

This appeal was unlucky, for it neutralized the amusement of the two
elder gentlemen, and brought them back to their starting-point. It was a
mistake in every way, for Powys, though he was looking on with interest
and wonder, did not understand what Sara meant. He looked at her when
she spoke, and reddened, and faltered something, and then betook himself
to his plate with great assiduity, to hide his perplexity. He had never
known any thing but the realities of life. He had known them in their
most primitive shape, and he was beginning to become acquainted with
them still more bitterly in the shape they take in the midst of
civilization, when poverty has to contend with more than the primitive
necessities. And to think of this dainty creature, whose very air that
she breathed seemed different from that of his world, desiring to be
brought face to face with such realities! He had been looking at her
with great reverence, but now there mingled with his reverence just that
shade of conscious superiority which a man likes to feel. He was not
good, sweet, delightsome, celestial, as she was, but he knew
better–precious distinction between the woman and the man.

But Sara, always thinking of him as so different from herself that she
could use freedom with him, was not satisfied. “You understand me?” she
said, repeating her appeal.

“No,” said young Powys; “at least if it is real poverty she speaks of, I
don’t think Miss Brownlow can know what it means.” He turned to her
father as he spoke with the instinct of natural good-breeding. And
thereupon there occurred a curious change. The two gentlemen began to
approve of the stranger. Sara, who up to this moment had been so
gracious, approved of him no more.

“You are quite right,” said the Rector; “what Miss Brownlow is thinking
of is an imaginary poverty which exists no longer–if it ever existed.
If your father had ever been a poor curate, my dear Sara, like myself,
for instance–”

“Oh, if you are all going to turn against me–” said Sara, with a little
shrug of her shoulders. And she turned away as much as she could do it
without rudeness from the side of the table at which young Powys sat,
and began in revenge to talk society. “So Fanny is at Ridley,” she said;
“what does she mean by always being at Ridley? The Keppels are very
well, but they are not so charming as that comes to. Is there any one
nice staying there just now?”

“Perhaps you and I should not agree about niceness,” said the Rector.
“There are several people down for Easter. There is Sir Joseph Scrape,
for instance, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer once, before you were
born. I am very fond of him, but you would prefer his grandson, Sara, if
he happened to have a grandson.”

“On the contrary, I like old gentlemen,” said Sara. “I never see any
thing else, for one thing. There is yourself, Mr. Hardcastle, and
papa–”

“Well, I suppose I am an old gentleman,” said the Rector, ruefully; “at
least to babies like you. That is how things go in this world–one
shifts the burden on to one’s neighbor. Probably Sir Joseph is of my
mind, and thinks somebody else old. And then, in revenge, we have
nothing to do but to call you young creatures babies, though you have
the world in your hands,” Mr. Hardcastle added, with a sigh; for he was
a vigorous man, and a widower, and had been already twice married, and
saw no reason why he should not take that step again. And it was hard
upon him to be called an old gentleman in this unabashed and open way.

“Well, they have the world before them,” said Mr. Brownlow; “but I am
not so sure that they have it in their hands.”

“We have nothing in our hands,” said Sara, indignantly–“even I, though
papa is awfully good to me. I don’t mean to speak slang, but he is
_awfully_ good, you know; and what does it matter? I daren’t go anywhere
by myself, or do any thing that every body else doesn’t do. And as for
Fanny, she would not so much as take a walk if she thought you did not
like it.”

“Fanny is a very good girl,” said Mr. Hardcastle, with a certain melting
in his voice.

“We are all very good girls,” said Sara; “but what is the use of it? We
have to do every thing we are told just the same; and have old Lady
Motherwell, for example, sitting upon one, whenever she has a chance.
And then you say we have the world in our hands! If you were to let us
do a little as we pleased, and be happy our own way–”

“Then you have changed your mind,” said Mr. Brownlow. He was smiling,
but yet underneath that he was very serious, not able to refrain from
giving in his mind a thousand times more weight than they deserved to
his daughter’s light and random words, though he knew well enough they
were random and light. “I thought you were a dutiful child, who would do
what I asked you, even in the most important transaction of your
life–so you said once, at least.”

“Any thing you asked me, papa?” cried Sara, with a sudden change of
countenance. “Yes, to be sure! any thing! Not because I am dutiful, but
because–you are surely all very stupid to-day–because– Don’t you know
what I mean?”

“Yes,” said young Powys, who all this time had not spoken a word.
Perhaps in her impatience her eye had fallen upon him; perhaps it was
because he could not help it; but however that might be, the
monosyllable sent a little electric shock round the table. As for the
speaker himself, he had no sooner uttered it than he reddened like a
girl up to his very hair. Sara started a little, and became suddenly
silent, looking at the unexpected interpreter she had got; and as for
the Rector, he stared with the air of a man who asks himself, What next?

The sudden pause thus made in the conversation by his inadvertent reply,
confused the young man most of all. He felt it down to the very tips of
his fingers. It went tingling through him, as if he were the centre of
the electricity–as indeed he was. His first impulse, to get up and run
away, of course could not be yielded to; and as luncheon was over by
this time, and the servants gone, and the business of the meal over, it
was harder than ever to find any shelter to retire behind. Despair at
last, however, gave him a little courage. “I think, sir,” he said,
turning to Mr. Brownlow, “if you have no commands for me, that I had
better go. Mr. Wrinkell will want to know your opinion; unless,
indeed–”

“I am not well enough for work,” said Mr. Brownlow, “and you may as well
take a holiday as you are here. It will do you good. Go and look at the
horses, and take a stroll in the park. Of course you are fond of the
country. I don’t think there is much to see in the house–”

“If Mr. Powys would like to see the Claude, I will take him into the
drawing-room,” said Sara, with all her original benignity. Powys, to
tell the truth, did not very well know whether he was standing on his
head, or on the other and more ordinary extremity. He was confounded by
the grace showed to him. And being a backwoodsman by nature, and knowing
not much more than Masterton in the civilized world, the fact is that at
first, before he considered the matter, he had not an idea what a Claude
was. But that made no difference; he was ready to have gone to
Pandemonium if the same offer had been made to show the way. Not that he
had fallen in love at first sight with the young mistress of Brownlows.
He was too much dazzled, too much surprised for that; but he had
understood what she meant, and the finest little delicate thread of
_rapport_ had come into existence between them. As for Sara’s
condescension and benignity, he liked it. Her brother would have driven
him frantic with a tithe of the affability which Sara thought her duty
under the circumstances; but from her it was what it ought to be. The
young man did not think it was possible that such a privilege was to be
accorded to him, but he looked at her gratefully, thanking her with his
eyes. And Sara looked at him, and for an instant saw into those eyes,
and became suddenly sensible that it was not her father’s clerk, but a
man, a young man, to whom she had made this obliging offer. It was not
an idea that had entered her head before; he was a clerk whom Mr.
Brownlow chose to bring in to luncheon. He might have been a hundred for
any thing Sara cared. Now, all at once it dawned upon her that the clerk
was a man, and young, and also well-looking, a discovery which filled
her with a certain mixture of horror and amusement. “Well, how was I to
know?” she said to herself, although, to be sure, she had been sitting
at the same table with him for about an hour.

“Certainly, if Powys likes, let him see the Claude; but I should think
he would prefer the horses,” said Mr. Brownlow; and then Sara rose and
shook out her long skirt, and made a little sign to the stranger to
follow her. When the two young creatures disappeared, Mr. Hardcastle,
who had been staring at them, open-mouthed, turned round aghast and pale
with consternation upon his friend.

“Brownlow, are you mad?” he said; “good heavens! if it was any body but
you I should think it was softening of the brain.”

“It may be softening of the brain,” said Mr. Brownlow, cheerfully; “I
don’t know what the symptoms are. What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” said the Rector–he had to stop and pour himself out a
glass of wine to collect his faculties–“why, it looks as if you meant
it. Send your clerk off with your child, a young fellow like that, as if
they were equals! Your _clerk_! I should not permit it with my Fanny, I
can tell you that.”

“Do you think Sara will run away with him?” said Mr. Brownlow, smiling.
“I feel sure I can trust _him_ not to do it. Why, what nonsense you are
speaking! If you have no more confidence in my little friend Fanny, I
have. _She_ would be in no danger from my clerk if she were to see him
every day, and show him all the pictures in the world.”

“Oh, Fanny,–that is not the question,” said the Rector, half suspicious
of the praise, and half pleased. “It was Sara we were talking of. I
don’t believe she would care if a man was a chimney-sweep. You have
inoculated her with your dreadful Radical ideas–”

“I? I am not a Radical,” said Mr. Brownlow; and he still smiled, though
he entered into no farther explanation. As for the Rector, he gulped
down his wine, and subsided into his neck-cloth, as he did when he was
disturbed in his mind. He had no parallel in his experience to this
amazing indiscretion. Fanny?–no; to be sure Fanny was a very good girl,
and knew her place better–she would not have offered to show the
Claude, though it had been the finest Claude in the world, even to a
curate, much less to a clerk. And then it seemed to Mr. Hardcastle that
Mr. Brownlow’s eyes looked very heavy, and that there were many tokens
half visible about him of softening of the brain.

Meanwhile Sara went sweeping along the great wide fresh airy passages,
and through the hall, and up the grand stair-case. Her dress was of
silk, and rustled–not a vulgar rustle, like that which announces some
women offensively wherever they go, but a soft satiny silvery ripple of
sound, which harmonized her going like a low accompaniment. Young Powys
had only seen her for the first time that day, and he was a reasonable
young fellow, and had not a thought of love or love-making in his mind.
Love! as if any thing so preposterous could ever arise between this
young princess and a poor lawyer’s clerk, maintaining his mother and his
little sisters on sixty pounds a year. But yet, he was a young man, and
she was a girl; and following after her as he did, it was not in human
nature not to behold and note the fair creature, with her glistening
robes and her shining hair. Now and then, when she passed through a
patch of sunshine from one of the windows, she seemed to light up all
over, and reflect it back again, and send forth soft rays of responsive
light. Though she was so slender and slight, her step was as steady and
free as his own, Canadian and backwoodsman as he was; and yet, as she
moved, her pretty head swayed by times like the head of a tall lily upon
the breeze, not with weakness, but with the flexile grace that belonged
to her nature. Powys saw all this, and it bewitched him, though she was
altogether out of his sphere. Something in the atmosphere about her went
to his head. It was the most delicate intoxication that ever man felt,
and yet it was intoxication in a way. He went up stairs after her,
feeling like a man in a dream, not knowing what fairy palace, what new
event she might be leading him to; but quite willing and ready, under
her guidance, to meet any destiny that might await him. The Claude was
so placed in the great drawing-room, that the actual landscape, so far
as the mild greenness of the park could be called landscape, met your
eye as you turned from the immortal landscape of the picture. Sara went
straight up to it without a pause, and showed her companion where he was
to stand. “This is the Claude,” she said, with a majestic little wave of
her hand by way of introduction. And the young man stood and looked at
the picture, with her dress almost touching him. If he did not know much
about the Claude at the commencement, he knew still less now. But he
looked into the clear depths of the picture with the most devout
attention. There was a ripple of water, and a straight line of light
gleaming down into it, penetrating the stream, and casting up all the
crisp cool glistening wavelets against its own glow. But as for the
young spectator, who was not a connoisseur, his head got confused
somehow between the sun on Claude’s ripples of water, and the sun as it
had fallen in the hall upon Sara’s hair and her dress.

“It is very lovely,” he said, rather more because he thought it was the
thing he ought to say than from any other cause.

“Yes,” said Sara; “we are very proud of our Claude; but I should like to
know why active men like papa should like those sort of pictures; he
prefers landscapes to every thing else–whereas they make me impatient.
I want something that lives and breathes. I like pictures of life–not
that one everlasting line of light fixed down upon the canvas with no
possibility of change.”

“I don’t know much about pictures,” said Powys–“but yet–don’t you
think it is less natural still to see one everlasting attitude–like
that, for instance, on the other wall? people don’t keep doing one
particular thing all their lives.”

“I should like to be a policeman and tell them to move on,” said Sara.
“That woman there, who is giving the bread to the beggar–she has been
the vexation of my life; why can’t she give it and have done with it? I
think I hate pictures–I don’t see what we want with them. I always want
to know what happened next.”

“But nothing need happen at all here,” said Powys, with unconscious
comprehension, turning to the Claude again. He was a little out of his
depth, and not used to this kind of talk, but more and more it was going
to his head, and that intoxication carried him on.

“That is the worst of all,” said Sara. “Why doesn’t there come a
storm?–what is the good of every thing always being the same? That was
what I meant down stairs when you pretended you did not understand.”

What was the poor young fellow to say? He was penetrated to his very
heart by the sweet poison of this unprecedented flattery–for it was
flattery, though Sara meant nothing more than the freemasonry of youth.
She had forgotten he was a clerk, standing there before the Claude; she
had even forgotten her own horror at the discovery that he was a man. He
was young, like herself, willing to follow her lead, and he
“understood;” which after all, though Sara was not particularly wise, is
the true test of social capabilities. He did know what she meant, though
in that one case he had not responded; and Sara, like every body else of
quick intelligence and rapid mind, met with a great many people who
stared and did not know what she meant. This was why she did the
stranger the honor of a half reproach;–it brought the poor youth’s
intoxication to its height.

“But I don’t think you understand,” he said, ruefully, apologetically,
pathetically, laying himself down at her feet as it were, to be trod
upon if she pleased. “You don’t know how hard it is to be poor; so long
as it was only one’s self, perhaps, or so long as it was mere hardship;
but there is worse than that; you have to feel yourself mean and
sordid–you have to do shabby things. You have to put yourself under
galling obligations; but I ought not to speak to you like this–that is
what it really is to be poor.”

Sara stood and looked at him, opening her eyes wider and wider. This was
not in the least like the cottage with the roses, but she had forgotten
all about that; what she was thinking of now was whether he was
referring to his own case–whether his life was like that–whether her
father could not do something for him; but for the natural grace of
sympathy which restrained her, she would have said so right out; but in
her simplicity she said something very near as bad. “Mr. Powys,” she
said, quite earnestly, “do you live in Masterton all alone?”

Then he woke up and came to himself. It was like falling from a great
height, and finding one’s feet, in a very confused, sheepish sort of
way, on the common ground. And the thought crossed his mind, also, that
she might think he was referring to himself, and made him still more
sheepish and confused. But yet, now that he was roused, he was able to
answer for himself. “No, Miss Brownlow,” he said; “my mother and my
little sisters are with me. I don’t live alone.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” said Sara, whose turn it now was to blush. “I
hope you like Masterton?” This very faltering and uncomfortable question
was the end of the interview; for it was very clear no answer was
required. And then she showed him the way down stairs, and he went his
way by himself, retracing the very steps which he had taken when he was
following her. He felt, poor fellow, as if he had made a mistake
somehow, and done something wrong, and went out very rueful into the
park, as he would have gone to his desk, in strict obedience to his
employer’s commands.