ONLY MR. BROWNLOW’S CLERK

There was a pleasant bustle about the house that evening when the
dog-cart drove up. The sportsmen had been late of getting in, and nobody
as yet had gone to dress; the door was open, and in the hall and about
the broad door-steps pretty groups were lingering. Sara and her friends
on their way up stairs had encountered the gentlemen, fresh from their
sport, some of whom had no doubt strayed to the sideboard, which was
visible through the open door of the dining-room; but the younger ones
were about the hall in their shooting-dresses talking to the girls and
giving an account of themselves. There was about them all that sense of
being too late, and having no right to be there, which gives a zest to
such stolen moments. The men were tired with their day’s work, and, for
that matter, the ladies too, who, after the monotony of the afternoon
and their cup of tea, wanted a little amusement; and there was a sound
of talk and of laughter and pleasant voices, which could be heard
half-way down the avenue. They had all been living under the same roof
for some days at least, and people get to know each other intimately
under such circumstances. This was the scene upon which young Powys,
still bewildered with delight, alighted suddenly, feeling as if he had
fallen from the clouds. He jumped down with a light heart into the
bright reflection of the lamp which fell over the steps, but somehow his
heart turned like a piece of lead within his heart the moment his foot
touched the flags. It grew like a stone within him without any reason,
and he did not know why. Nobody knew him, it is true; but he was not a
shy boy to be distressed by that. He jumped down, and his position was
changed. Between him and Mr. Brownlow, who was so kind to him, and Jack,
who was so hostile yet sympathetic, and Sara, whom he loved, there were
unquestionable relations. But when he heard the momentary pause that
marked his appearance, the quick resuming of the talk with a certain
interrogative tone, “Who is he?” the glance at him askance, the sudden
conviction rushed into his mind that all the better-informed were
saying, “It is only his clerk”–and it suddenly occurred to Powys that
there existed no link of possible connection between himself and all
those people. He knew nobody–he had no right to know any body among
them. He was there only by Mr. Brownlow’s indiscreet favoritism, taken
out of his own sphere. And thus he fell flat out of his foolish elysium.
Mr. Brownlow, too, felt it as he stepped out into the midst of them all;
but his mind was preoccupied, and though it irritated, it did not move
him. He looked round upon his guests, and he said, with a smile which
was not of the most agreeable kind, “You will be late for dinner, young
people, and I am as hungry as an ogre. I shan’t give you any grace.
Sara, don’t you see Powys? Willis, send Mr. Powys’s things up to the
green room beside mine. Come along, and I’ll show you the way.”

To say Sara was not much startled would be untrue; but she too had been
aware of the uncomfortable moment of surprise and dismay among the
assembled guests, and a certain fine instinct of natural courtesy which
she possessed came to her aid. She made a step forward, though her
cheeks were scarlet, and her heart beating loud, and held out her hand
to the new visitor: “I am very glad to see you,” she said. Not because
she was really glad, so much as because these were the first words that
occurred to her. It was but a moment, and then Powys followed Mr.
Brownlow up stairs. But when Sara turned round to her friends again she
was unquestionably agitated, and it appeared to her that every body
perceived she was so. “How cross your papa looks,” said one of them; “is
he angry?–what have we done?” And then the clock struck seven. “Oh,
what a shame to be so late! we ought all to have been ready. No wonder
Mr. Brownlow is cross,” said another; and they all fluttered away like a
flock of doves, flying up the staircase. Then the young men marched off
too, and the pretty scene was suddenly obliterated, and nothing left but
the bare walls, and Willis the butler gravely superintending his
subordinates as they gave the finishing touches to the dinner-table. The
greater part of the company forgot all about this little scene before
five minutes had elapsed, but there were two or three who did not
forget. These were Powys, first of all, who was tingling to the ends of
his fingers with Sara’s words and the momentary touch of her little
hand. It was but natural, remembering how they parted, that he should
find a special meaning in what she said, and he had no way of knowing
that his arrival was totally unexpected, and that she was taken by
surprise. And as for Sara herself, her heart fluttered strangely under
the pretty white dress which was being put on. Madlle. Angelique could
not make out what it was that made her mistress so hard to manage. She
would not keep still as a lady ought when she is getting dressed. She
made such abrupt movements as to snatch her long bright locks out of
Angelique’s hands, and quite interfere with the management of her
ribbons. She too had begun to recollect what were the last words Powys
had addressed to her. And she to say she was glad to see him! Mr.
Brownlow had himself inducted his clerk into the green room, next door
to his own, which was one of the best rooms in the house; and his
thoughts would not bear talking of. They were inarticulate, though their
name was legion; they seemed to buzz about him as he made his rapid
toilette, so that he almost thought they must make themselves heard
through the wall. Things had come to a desperate pass, and there was no
time to be biased by thoughts. He had dressed in a few minutes, and then
he went to his daughter. Sara at the best of times was not so rapid. She
was still in her dressing-gown at that moment with her hair in
Angelique’s hands, and it was too late to send the maid away.

“Sara,” said Mr. Brownlow, very tersely, “you will take care that young
Powys is not neglected at dinner. Mind that you arrange it so–”

“Shall he take me in?” said Sara, with a sudden little outbreak of
indignation which did her good. “I suppose you do not mean that?”

“I am speaking in earnest,” said Mr. Brownlow, with some offense. “I
have put him in the green room. Recollect that I think nothing in the
house too good for this young man–nothing. I hope you will recollect
what I say.”

“Nothing?” said Sara, with a little surprise; and then the instinct of
mischief returned to her, and she added, demurely, “that is going a long
way.”

“It is going a very long way–as far as a man can go,” said Mr.
Brownlow, with a sigh–“farther than most men would go.” And then he
went away. As for Sara, her very ears thrilled with the significance of
his tone. It frightened her into her senses when perhaps she might have
been excused for being partly out of them. If she was kind to Powys–as
kind as her father’s orders required–what could he think? Would he
remember what he had ventured to say? Would he think she was giving him
“encouragement?” Notwithstanding this perplexity she allowed Angelique
to dress her very nicely with her favorite blue ribbons and ornaments;
and when she set out to go down stairs, perhaps there was a little touch
of Iphigenia in her air; but the martyrdom was not to call disagreeable.
He was in the drawing-room when she went in. He was in a corner looking
at photographs, which is the general fate of a poor man in a large party
who knows nobody. Sara had a little discussion with herself whether it
was her duty to go at once to Powys and take him under her protection.
But when she looked at him–as she managed to do, so to speak, without
looking–it became apparent to her that the young Canadian was too much
a man to be treated with any such condescension; he was very humble,
very much aware that his presumption in lifting his eyes to the height
on which she sat was unpardonable; but still, if she had gone to him and
devoted herself to his amusement, there is no telling what the results
might have been. He was not one to take it meekly. The room gradually
filled and grew a pretty sight as Sara made these reflections. The
ladies came down like butterflies, translated out of their warm close
morning-dresses into clouds of vapory white and rosy color and sparkles
of ornament like evening dew; and the sportsmen in their knickerbockers
had melted into spotless black figures, relieved with patches of
spotless white, as is the use of gentlemen. The talk scarcely began
again with its former freedom, for the moment before dinner is a grim
moment, especially when men have been out all day and are hungry.
Accordingly, the black figures massed themselves well up about the
fire-place, and murmured through their beards such scraps of
intelligence as suit the masculine capacity; while the ladies settled
all round like flower borders, more patient and more smiling. Nobody
took any particular notice of Powys in his corner, except, indeed, Mr.
Brownlow who stood very upright by the mantle-piece and did not speak,
but looked at Sara, sternly as she thought, and then at the stranger. It
was a difficult position for the young mistress of the house. When her
father’s glance became urgent she called a friend to her aid–a young
woman of a serviceable age, not young and not old–who happened to be
good-natured as well. “He is a friend of papa’s,” she said–“a _great_
friend, but he knows nobody.” And, strengthened by this companionship,
she ventured to draw near the man who, in that very room, not far from
that very spot, had told her he loved her. He was looking at a
picture–the same picture of the woman holding out bread to the
beggar–and he was thinking, Should he ever have that bread?–was it
possible? or only a mockery of imagination? As Sara approached him the
memory of that other scene came over her so strongly, and her heart
began to beat so loudly, that she could scarcely hear herself speaking.
“I want to introduce you to my friend Miss Ellerslie,” she said. “Mr.
Powys, Mary–you will take her in to dinner.” And then she came to a
dead stop, breathless with confusion. As for poor Powys, he made his new
acquaintance a bow, and very nearly turned his back upon her, not seeing
her for the dazzle in his eyes. This was about all the intercourse that
passed between them, until, for one minute, and one only, after dinner,
when he found himself by accident close to Sara’s chair. He stood behind
her, lingering, scarcely seeing her, for she was almost hidden by the
high back of the chair, yet feeling her all round him in the very air,
and melted, poor fellow, into the languor of a sweet despair. It was
despair, but yet it was sweet, for was he not there beside her? and
though his love was impossible, as he said to himself, still there are
impossibilities, which are more dear than any thing that can be
compassed by man. As he stood, not venturing to say any thing–not
knowing, indeed, what to say–Sara suddenly turned round and discovered
him. She looked up, and neither did she say any thing; but when their
eyes met, a sudden violent scorching blush flashed over her face. Was it
anger, indignation, displeasure? He could not tell–but one thing was
very clear, that it was recollection. She had not forgotten his wild
words any more than he had. They were tingling in her ears as in his,
and she did not look at him with the steady look of indignation putting
him down. On the contrary, it was her eyes which sank before his, though
she did not immediately turn away her face. That was all–and no
rational human creature could have said it meant any thing; but yet when
it came to be Powys’s fate to address himself once more to the
photographs, he did so with the blood coursing through all his veins,
and his life as it were quickened within him. The other people with whom
she was intimate, who were free to crowd around her, to talk to her, to
occupy her attention, were yet nothing to her in comparison with what he
was. Between these two there was a consciousness that existed between no
other two in the party, friendly and well-acquainted as they all were.
The Canadian was in such a state of mind that this one point in the
evening made every thing else comparatively unimportant. His companion
at dinner had been kind and had talked to him; but after dinner, when
the ladies left, the men had snubbed the intruder. Those who were near
him had rushed into talk about people and places of whom he had no
knowledge, as ill-bred persons are apt to do–and he had not found it
pleasant. They had made him feel that his position was an anomalous one,
and the backwoodsman had longed in his heart to show his sense of their
rudeness and get up and go away. But after he had seen Sara’s blush, he
forgot all about the young fellows and their impertinence. He was at the
time of life when such a thing can happen. He was for the moment quite
content with the photographs, though he had not an idea what they were
like. He was not hoping any thing, nor planning any thing, nor believing
that any thing could come of it. He was slightly delirious, and did not
know what he was about–that was all.

“Are you fond of this sort of thing?” Mr. Brownlow said, coming up. Mr.
Brownlow paid him an uneasy sort of attention, which made Powys more
uncomfortable than the neglect of the others, for it implied that his
host knew he was being neglected and wanted to make it up to him; “but
then you should have seen all these places before you can care for them.
And you have never been abroad.”

“No, except on the other side of the Atlantic,” said Powys, with
colonial pride; “and you don’t seem to think any thing of that.”

“Ah, yes, Canada,” said Mr. Brownlow; and then he was so anxious to keep
his young visitor in good-humor that he began to talk solidly and
heavily of Canada and its resources and future prospects. Mr. Brownlow
was _distrait_, and not very well informed, and Powys had not the heart
to laugh at Sara’s father even when he made mistakes, so that the
conversation was not very lively between them. This, however, was all
the amusement the stranger got on his first evening at Brownlows. The
proposal to go there had thrown him into a kind of ecstasy, but this was
all the result. When he got into his own room at night and thought it
all over, an impulse of good sense came to his aid. It was folly. In the
office at Masterton he was in his fit place, and nobody could object to
him; but this was not his fit place. It might be uncivil and bad manners
on their part to make him feel it, but yet the party at Brownlows was
right. He had nothing to do there. If he could think that Miss
Brownlow’s heart had softened a little toward him, it was his duty all
the more to deny himself and take himself out of her way. What had love
to do between her and him? It was monstrous–not to be thought of. He
had been insane when he came, but to-morrow he would go back, and make a
stern end of all those dreams. These were Powys’s thoughts within
himself. But there was a conversation going on about him down stairs of
a very different kind.

When the company had all retired, Jack detained his father and his
sister to speak to them. Jack was highly uncomfortable in his mind
himself, and naturally he was in a very rampant state of virtue. He
could not endure that other people should have their cakes and ale; and
he did not like his father’s looks nor Sara’s, and felt as if the honor
of his house was menaced somehow. He took Sara’s candle from her after
his father had lighted it, and set it down on the table. “The nuisance
of having all these people,” said Jack, “is, that one never has a moment
to one’s self, and I want to speak to you. I don’t mean to say any thing
against Powys, sir–nobody knows any thing about him. Has he told you
what he said to Sara when he was last here?”

“Jack! how dare you?” said Sara, turning on her brother; but Jack took
no notice of her beautiful blazing eyes.

“Did he tell you, that you are so well informed?” said Mr. Brownlow. If
either of his children had been cool enough to observe it, they would
have perceived that he was too quiet, and that his calm was unnatural;
but they suspected nothing, and consequently they did not observe.

“He told me enough to make me understand,” said Jack; “and I dare say
you’ve forgotten how young men think, and don’t suppose it’s of any
consequence. Sara knows. If it was a mere nothing, I should not take the
trouble,” added the exemplary brother; “but, in the circumstances, it’s
my duty to interfere. After what he said, when you bring him here again
it is giving him license to speak; it is giving him a kind of tacit
consent. She knows,” said Jack, pointing to his sister, who confronted
him, growing pale and growing scarlet. “It’s as good as saying you will
back him out; and, good heavens, when you consider who he is–”

“Do _you_ know who he is?” said Mr. Brownlow. He was very hard put to it
for that moment, and it actually occurred to him to deliver himself of
his secret, and throw his burden on their shoulders–the two who, in
their ignorance, were thus putting the last touch of exasperation to his
ordeal. He realized the blank amazement with which they would turn to
him, the indignation, the– Ah, but he could not go any farther. What
would have succeeded to the first shock of the news he dared not
anticipate–beggary probably, and utter surrender of every thing;
therefore Mr. Brownlow held his peace.

“I know he is in the office at Masterton,” said Jack–“I know he is your
clerk, and I don’t suppose he is a prince in disguise. If he is honest,
and is who he professes to be–I beg your pardon, sir, for saying
so–but he ought not to be brought into my sister’s society, and he has
no business to be here.”

“Papa!” cried Sara, breathless, “order him to be quiet! Is it supposed
that I can’t see any one without being in danger of–of–that any man
whom papa chooses to bring is to be kept away for me? I wonder what you
think of me? We girls are not such wretched creatures, I can tell you;
nor so easily led; nor so wicked and proud–nor– Papa! stop this
immediately, and let Jack mind his own affairs.”

“I have just one word to say, Jack,” said Mr. Brownlow,–“my darling, be
quiet–never mind;–Powys is more important to me than if he were a
prince in disguise. I know who he is. I have told your sister that I
think nothing in this house too good for him. He is my clerk, and you
think he is not as good as you are; but he is very important to me. I
give you this explanation, not because I think you have any right to it,
after your own proceedings. And as for you, my dear child,” he added,
putting his arm round her, with an involuntary melting of his heart,
“my pretty Sara! you are only to do what your heart suggests, my
darling. I once asked a sacrifice of you, but I have not the heart now.
If your heart goes this way, it will be justice. Yes, justice. I know
you don’t understand me; but if not, Sara, I will not interfere with
you. You are to do according to your own heart.”

“Papa!” said Sara, clinging to him, awed and melted and astonished by
the emotion in his eyes.

“Yes,” Mr. Brownlow repeated, taking her face in his hands, and kissing
it. If he had been a soft-hearted man he would have been weeping, but
there was something in his look beyond tears. “It will be just, and the
best way–but only if it’s after your own heart. And I know you don’t
understand me. You’ll never understand me, if all goes well; but all the
same, remember what I say.”

And then he took up the candle which Jack had taken out of Sara’s hand.
“Never understand me–never, if all goes well,” he muttered to himself.
He was strained to the last point, and he could not bear any more.
Before his children had recovered from their amaze he had gone away, not
so much as looking at them again. They might talk or speculate as they
would; he could bear no more.

Jack and Sara looked in each other’s faces as he disappeared. They were
both startled, but in a different way. Was he mad? his son thought; and
Jack grew pale over the possibility: but as for Sara, her life was bound
up in it. It was not the blank of dismay and wonder that moved her. She
did not speculate on what her father meant by justice. Something else
stirred in her heart and veins. As for Jack, he was thunderstruck. “He
must be going mad!” he said. “For heaven’s sake, Sara, don’t give any
weight to these delusions; he can’t be in his right mind.”

“Do you mean papa?” said Sara, stamping her foot in indignation; “he is
a great deal wiser than you will ever be. Jack, I don’t know what you
mean; it must be because you are wicked yourself that you think every
body else is going wrong; but you shall not speak so to me.”

“Yes; I see you are going to make a fool of yourself,” said Jack, in his
superiority. “You are shutting your eyes and taking your own way. When
you come to a downfall you will remember what I say. You are trying to
make a fool of him, but you won’t succeed–mind I tell you, you won’t
succeed. He knows what he is about too well for that.”

“If it is Mr. Powys you are speaking of–” said Sara; but she paused,
for the name betrayed her somehow–betrayed her even to herself,
bringing the color to her cheeks and a gleam to her eyes. Then she made
believe as if she scorned to say more, and held her little head high
with lofty contempt, and lighted her candle. “I am sure we should not
agree on that subject, and it is better we should not try,” said Sara,
and followed her father loftily up stairs, leaving Jack discomfited,
with the feeling of a prophet to whom nobody would listen. He said to
himself he knew how it would be–his father had got some wild idea in
his head! and Sara was as headstrong and fanciful as ever girl was, and
would rush to her own destruction. Jack went out with this sense of
approaching calamity in his mind, and lighted his cigar, and took a turn
down the avenue as far as the gate, where he could see the light in Mrs.
Preston’s window. It seemed to him that the world was losing its
balance–that only he saw how badly things were turning, and nobody
would listen to him. And, strangely enough, his father’s conduct seemed
so mad to him altogether that his mind did not fix on the maddest word
of it–the word which by this time had got into Sara’s head, and was
driving her half wild with wonder. Justice! What did it mean? Sara was
thinking in her agitation: but Jack, taking things in general as at
their worst, passed over that particular. And thus they all separated
and went to bed, as was to be supposed, in the most natural and seemly
way. People slept well at Brownlows in general, the air being so good,
and all the influences so healthful, after these long days out-of-doors;
and nobody was the wiser for it if “the family” were any way disturbed
among themselves.

As for Mr. Brownlow, he threw himself down on his bed in a certain lull
of despair. He was dead tired. It was pitiful to see him thus worn out,
with too little hope to make any exertion, driven to his last resource,
thinking of nothing but of how to forget it all for a little and get it
out of his mind. He tried to sleep and to be still, and when he found he
could not sleep, got up again and took some brandy–a large fiery
dose–to keep his thoughts away. He had thought so much that now he
loathed thinking. If he could but go on and let fortune bring him what
it might; if he could but fall asleep–asleep, and not wake again till
all was over–not awake again at all for that matter. There was nothing
so delightful in the world that he should wish very much to wake again.
Not that the faintest idea of putting an end to himself ever crossed his
mind. He was only sick of it all, tired to death, disgusted with every
thing–his own actions, and the frivolity and folly of others who
interfered with his schemes, and the right that stood in his way, and
the wrong that he was trying to do. At that moment he had not heart
enough to go on with any thing. Such moments of disgust come even to
those who are the most energetic and ready. He seemed to have thrown the
guidance of affairs out of his hands, and be trusting to mere blind
chance–if any thing is ruled by chance. If this boy and girl should
meet, if they should say to each other certain foolish words, if they
should be idiots enough, the one and the other, as to commit themselves,
and pledge their lives to an act of the maddest absurdity, not unmixed
with wickedness–for it would be wicked of Powys, poor as he was, and
burdened as he was, to ask Sara to marry him, and it would be insanity
on her part to consent–if this mad climax should arrive, then a kind of
salvation in ruin, a kind of justice in wrong, would be wrought. And to
this chance Mr. Brownlow, after all his plans and schemes, after all his
thought and the time he had spent in considering every thing, had come
as the sole solution of his difficulties. He had abdicated, as it were,
the throne of reason, and left himself to chance and the decision of two
ignorant children. What wind might veer their uncertain intentions, or
sudden impulse change them, he could not tell. He could not influence
them more, could not guide them, any farther. What could he do but
sleep? Oh, that he could have but slept, and let the crisis accomplish
itself and all be over! Then he put out his light and threw himself upon
his bed, and courted slumber like a lover. It was the only one thing in
the world Mr. Brownlow could now do, having transferred, as it were, the
responsibility and the power of action into other hands.

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