Every body in the neighborhood was perfectly aware what was the origin
of John Brownlow’s fortune. There was no possibility of any mistake
about it. When people are very well known and respectable, and inspire
their neighbors with a hearty interest, some little penalty must be paid
for that pleasant state of affairs. It is only when nobody cares for
you, when you are of no importance to the world in general, that you can
shroud your concerns in mystery; but the Brownlows were very well known,
much respected, and quite unable to hide themselves in a corner. In all
Dartfordshire there was no family better known; not that they were
county people, or had any pretensions to high connection, but then there
was not one family in the county of whom John Brownlow did not know more
than they knew themselves, and in his hands, and in the hands of his
fathers before him, had reposed the papers and affairs of all the
squires about, titled or otherwise, for more years than could be
counted. It was clever of the Brownlows to have had so much business in
their hands and yet not to be rich; but virtue, when it is exceptional,
is perhaps always a little extreme, and so it is probable that an honest
lawyer is honester than most honest men who have no particular
temptation. They were not rich, and yet, of course, they were far from
being poor. They had the kind of substantial old brick house, standing
close up to the pavement in the best end of the High Street of
Masterton, which would be described as a mansion in an auctioneer’s
advertisement. It was very red and infinitely clean, and had a multitude
of windows all blinking in the sun, and lighting up into impromptu
illuminations every winter afternoon, when that blazing red luminary
went down, not over the river and the open country, as he ought to have
done, but into the rectory garden, which happened to lie in his way as
he halted along toward the west. The Brownlows for generations back had
lived very comfortably in this red house. It had a great, rich,
luxuriant, warm garden behind, with all sorts of comforts attached to
it, and the rooms were handsome and old-fashioned, as became a house
that had served generations; and once upon a time many good dinners, and
much good wine, and the most beautiful stores of fine linen, and
crystal, and silver were in the house, for comfort, and not for show.
All this was very well, and John Brownlow was born to the possession of
it; but there can be no doubt that the house in the High Street was very
different from the house he now inhabited and the establishment he kept
up in the country. Even the house in the High Street had been more
burdened than was usual in the family when it came to his turn to be its
master. Arthur, the younger brother, who was never good for much, had
just had his debts paid for the second time before his father died. It
was not considered by many people as quite fair to John, though some did
say that it was he above all who urged the step upon old Mr. Brownlow.
Persons who professed to know, even asserted that the elder son, in his
generosity, had quite a struggle with his father, and that his argument
was always “for my mother’s sake.” If this, was true, it was all the
more generous of him, because his mother was well known to have thought
nothing of John in comparison with the handsome Arthur, whom she spoiled
as long as she lived. Anyhow, the result was that John inherited the
house and the business, the furniture and old crystal and silver, and a
very comfortable income, but nothing that could be called a fortune, or
that would in any way have justified him in launching out into a more
expensive description of life.

At this time he was thirty at least, and not of a speculative turn of
mind; and when old Mrs. Thomson’s will–a will not even drawn up in his
office, which would have been a kind of preparation–was read to him, it
is said that he lost his temper on the occasion, and used very
unbecoming language to the poor woman in her coffin. What had he to do
with the old hag? “What did she mean by bothering him with her filthy
money?” he said, and did not show at all the frame of mind that might
have been expected under the circumstances. Mrs. Thomson was an old
woman, who had lived in a very miserly sort of way, with an old servant,
in a little house in the outskirts of the town. Nobody could ever tell
what attracted her toward John Brownlow, who never, as he himself said,
had any thing to do with her; and she had relations of her own in
Masterton–the Fennells–who always knew she had money, and counted upon
being her heirs. But they were distant relations, and perhaps they did
not know all her story. What petrified the town, however, was, when it
was found out that old Mrs. Thomson had left a fortune, not of a few
hundreds, as people supposed, but of more than fifty thousand pounds,
behind her, and that it was all left in a way to John Brownlow. It was
left to him in trust for Mrs. Thomson’s daughter Phœbe, a person
whose existence no one in Masterton had ever dreamed of, but who, it
appeared had married a common soldier, and gone off with him ages
before, and had been cursed and cast off by her hard-hearted mother.
That was long, long ago, and perhaps the solitary old creature’s heart,
if she had a heart, had relented to her only child; perhaps, as John
Brownlow thought, it was a mere suggestion of Satan to trouble and annoy
him, a man who had nothing to do with Phœbe Thomson. Anyhow, this was
the substance of the will. The money was all left to John Brownlow in
trust for this woman, who had gone nobody knew where, and whose very
name by marriage her mother did not state, and nobody could tell. If
Phœbe Thomson did not make her appearance within the next twenty-five
years, then the money was to pass to John Brownlow and his heirs in
perpetuity beyond all power of reclamation. This was the strange event
which fell like a shell into the young lawyer’s quiet life, and brought
revolution and change to every thing around.

He was very much annoyed and put out about it at first; and the
Fennells, who had expected to be Mrs. Thomson’s heirs, were furious, and
not disinclined to turn upon him, blameless as he was. To tell the
truth, theirs was a very hard case. They were very poor.
Good-for-nothing sons are not exclusively reserved for the well-to-do
portion of the community; and poor Mrs. Fennell, as well as the Brownlow
family, had a good-for-nothing son, upon whom she had spent all her
living. He had disappeared at this time into the darkness, as such
people do by times, but of course it was always on the cards that he
might come back and be a burden upon his people again. And the father
was paralytic and helpless, not only incapable of doing any thing, but
requiring to have every thing done for him, that last aggravation of
poverty. Mrs. Fennell herself was not a prepossessing woman. She had a
high temper and an eloquent tongue, and her disappointment was tragic
and desperate. Poor soul! it was not much to be wondered at–she was so
poor and so helpless and burdened; and this money would have made them
all so comfortable. It was not that she thought of herself, the poor
woman said, but there was Fennell, who was cousin to the Thomsons, and
there was Tom out in the world toiling for his bread, and killing
himself with work. And then there was Bessie and her prospects. When she
had talked it all over at the highest pitch of her voice, and stormed at
every body, and made poor Fennell shake worse than ever in his paralytic
chair, and overwhelmed Bessie with confusion and misery, the poor woman
would sit down and cry. Only one thousand pounds of it would have done
them such a great deal of good; and there was fifty thousand, and it was
all going to be tied up and given to John Brownlow. It was hard upon a
woman with a hot head and a warm heart, and no temper or sense to speak
of; and to storm at it was the only thing she took any comfort from, or
that did her any good.

This money, which Mrs. Fennell regretted so bitterly for a long time,
was nothing but a nuisance to John Brownlow. He advertised and employed
detectives, and did every thing a man could do to find Phœbe Thomson
and relieve himself of the burden. But Phœbe Thomson was not to be
found. He sought her far and near, but no such person was to be heard
of–for, to be sure, a poor soldier’s wife was not very likely to be in
the way of seeing the second column of the “Times;” and if she should
happen to be Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Doherty by marriage, nobody but herself
and her husband might be aware that she had ever been Phœbe Thomson.
Anyhow, all the advertisements and all the detectives failed; and after
working very hard at it for a year or more, John Brownlow very quietly,
and to his own consciousness alone, d–d Phœbe Thomson, and gave up
the useless investigation.

But he was a man who had eyes, and a strong sense of justice. When he
thought of the poor Fennells, his anger rose against the wretched old
woman who had laid on him the burden of her money. Poor Mrs. Fennell’s
son was good for nothing, but she had a daughter who was good for much;
and Bessie had a lover who would gladly have married her, had that
wicked old miser, as John Brownlow in his indignation said, left only a
thousand pounds out of her fifty to help the paralytic father and
passionate mother. Bessie’s lover was not mercenary–he was not covetous
of a fortune with his wife; but he could not marry all the family, or
work for the old people, as their daughter had to do. This was what Mrs.
Fennell meant when she raved of poor Bessie and her prospects. But
Bessie herself said nothing. The lover went very sorrowfully away, and
Bessie was silent and went on with her work, and made no show of her
trouble. John Brownlow, without knowing it, got to watch her. He was not
aware for a long time why it was that, though he always had so much to
do, he never missed seeing Bessie when by chance she passed his windows.
As luck would have it, it was always at that moment he raised his eyes;
and he did his best to get pupils for her, “taking an interest” in her
which was quite unusual in so quiet a man. But it was not probable that
Bessie could have had much of an education herself, much less was
qualified to give it to others. And whether it was want of skill, or the
poverty of her surroundings, her poor dress, or her mother’s aspect and
temper, it is certain that, diligent and patient and “nice” as she was,
pupils failed her. She did not get on; yet she kept struggling on, and
toiling, keeping a smile in her eyes for every body that looked friendly
on her, whatever sinking there might be in her heart. And she was a
slight fragile little creature to bear all that weight on her shoulders.
John Brownlow, without knowing it, watched her little figure about the
streets all the year through, marveling at that “soft invincibility,”
that steady standing up against defeat and every kind of ill which the
gentle soul was capable of. And as he watched her, he had many thoughts
in his mind. He was not rich, as we have said; on the contrary, it would
have been his bounden duty, had he done his duty, to have married
somebody with a modest little fortune, who would have helped him to keep
up the house in the High Street, and give the traditionary dinners; and
to maintain his wife’s family, if he were to marry, was something out of
the question. But then that fifty thousand pounds–this money which did
not belong to him but to Phœbe Thomson, whosoever she was, and
wheresoever she might be. All this produced a confusion of thought which
was of very strange occurrence in Mr. Brownlow’s office, where his
ancestors for generations had pondered over other people’s
difficulties–a more pleasing operation than attending to one’s own.
Gradually, as time wore on, Phœbe Thomson grew into a more and more
mythical figure to Mr. Brownlow’s mind, and Bessie Fennell became more
and more real. When he looked up one winter’s afternoon and saw her
passing the office window in the glow of the frosty sunset, which
pointed at her in its clear-sighted way, and made thrice visible the
thinness of her cheek and the shabbiness of her dress, Mr. Brownlow’s
pen fell from his fingers in amaze and self-reproach. She was wearing
herself out, and he had permitted her to do so, and had sat at his
window thinking about it for two whole years. Two years had passed since
Mrs. Thomson’s death. All the investigations in the world had not been
able to find Phœbe; and John Brownlow was master of the old woman’s
fifty thousand pounds; and the Fennells might be starving for any thing
he could tell. The result was, that he proposed to Bessie, to the
unbounded amazement not only of the town of Masterton, but even of the
county people, who all knew Mr. Brownlow. Probably Bessie was as much
surprised as any body; but she married him after a while, and made him a
very good wife. And he pensioned her father and mother in the most
liberal way, and saw as little of them as possible. And for a few years,
though they did not give many dinners, every thing went on very well in
the big brick house.

I tell the story thus briefly, instead of introducing these people to
show their existence for themselves, because all this is much prior to
the real date of this history. Mrs. Brownlow made a very good and sweet
wife; and my own opinion is that she was fond of her husband in a quiet
way. But, of course, people said she had married him for his money, and
Bessie was one of those veiled souls who go through the world without
much faculty of revealing themselves even to their nearest and dearest.
When she did, nobody could make quite sure whether she had enjoyed her
life or merely supported it. She had fulfilled all her duties, been very
kind to every body, very faithful and tender to her husband, very
devoted to her family; but she died, and carried away a heart within her
of which no man seemed ever to have found the key. Sara and John were
very little at the time of her death–so little, that they scarcely
remembered their mother. And they were not like her. Little John, for
his part, was like big John, as he had a right to be; and Sara was like
nobody else that ever had been seen in Masterton. But that is a subject
which demands fuller exposition. Mr. Brownlow lived very quietly for
some years after he lost his wife; but then, as was natural, the
ordinary course of affairs was resumed. And then it was that the change
in his fortunes became fully evident. His little daughter was delicate,
and he got a carriage for her. He got ponies for her, and costly
governesses and masters down from town at the wildest expense; and then
he bought that place in the country which had once been Something Hall
or Manor, but which Dartfordshire, in its consternation, henceforward
called Brownlow’s. Brownlow’s it was, without a doubt; and Brownlows it
became–without the apostrophe–in the most natural way, when things
settled down. It was, as old Lady Hetherton said, “quite a _place_, my
dear; not one of your little bits of villas, you know.” And though it
was so near Masterton that Mr. Brownlow drove or rode in every day to
his office, its grounds and gardens and park were equal to those of any
nobleman in the county. Old Mrs. Thomson’s fifty thousand pounds had
doubled themselves, as money skillfully managed has a way of doing. It
had got for her executor every thing a man could desire. First, the wife
of his choice–though that gift had been taken from him–and every other
worldly good which the man wished or could wish for. He was able to
surround the daughter, who was every thing to him–who was more to him,
perhaps, than even his wife had ever been–with every kind of
delightsome thing; and to provide for his son, and establish him in the
world according to his inclinations; and to assume, without departing
from his own place, such a position as no former Brownlow had ever
occupied in the county. All this came to John Brownlow through old Mrs.
Thomson; and Phœbe Thomson, to whom the money in reality belonged,
had never turned up to claim it, and now there was but one year to run
of the five-and-twenty which limited his responsibilities. All this
being made apparent, it is the history of this one year that I have now
to tell.

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