PHŒBE THOMSON

It was only two days after this when Mr. Brownlow received that message
from old Mrs. Fennell which disturbed him so much. The message was
brought by Nancy, who was in the office waiting for him when he made his
appearance in the morning. Nancy, who had been old Mrs. Thomson’s maid,
was not a favorite with Mr. Brownlow, and both she and her present
mistress were aware of that; but Mrs. Fennell’s message was urgent, and
no other messenger was to be had. “You was to come directly, that was
what she said.” Such was Nancy’s commission. She was a very tall gaunt
old woman, and she stood very upright and defiant, as in an enemy’s
country, and no questions could draw any more from her. “She didn’t tell
me what she was a-wanting of. I’m not one as can be trusted,” said
Nancy. “You was to go directly, that was what she said.”

“Is she ill?” said Mr. Brownlow.

“No, she ain’t ill. She’s crooked; but she’s always crooked since ever I
knew her. You was to come directly; that’s all as I know.”

“Is it about something she wants?” said Mr. Brownlow again; he was
keeping himself down, and trying not to allow his anxiety to be
reawakened. “I am very busy. My son shall go over. Or if she will let me
know what it is she wants.”

“She wants you,” said Nancy. “That’s what she wants. I can’t say no
more, for, I scorn to deny it, I don’t know no more; but it ain’t Mr.
John she wants, it’s you.”

“Then tell her I will come about one o’clock,” said Mr. Brownlow; and he
returned to his papers. But this was only a pretense. He would not let
even such a despicable adversary as old Nancy see that the news
disturbed him. He went on with his papers, pretending to read them, but
he did not know what he was reading. Till one o’clock! It was but ten
o’clock then. No doubt it might be some of her foolish complaints, some
of the grievances she was constantly accumulating; or, on the other
hand, it might be–Mr. Brownlow drew his curtain aside for a minute, and
he saw that young Powys was sitting at his usual desk. The young man had
fallen back again into the cloud from which he had seemed to be
delivered at the time of his visit to Brownlows. He was not working at
that moment; he was leaning his head on his hand, and gazing with a very
downcast look at some minute characters on a bit of paper before
him–calculations of some kind it seemed. Looking at him, Mr. Brownlow
saw that he began to look shabby–white at the elbows, as well as
clouded and heavy over the eyes. He drew back the curtain again and
returned to his place, but with his mind too much agitated even for a
pretense at work. Had the old woman’s message any thing to do with this
youth? Had his calculations which he was attending to when he ought to
have been doing his work any connection with Mrs. Fennell’s sudden
summons? Mr. Brownlow was like a man surrounded by ghosts, and he did
not know from what quarter or in what shape they might next assail him.
But he had so far lost his self-command that he could not wait and fight
with his assailants till the hour he mentioned. He took up his hat at
last, hurriedly, and called to Mr. Wrinkell to say that he was going
out. “I shall be back in half an hour,” Mr. Brownlow said. The
head-clerk stood by and watched his employer go out, and shook his head.
“He’ll retire before long,” Mr. Wrinkell said to himself. “You’ll see he
will; and I would not give a sixpence for the business after he is
gone.” But Mr. Brownlow was not aware of this thought. He was thinking
nothing about the business. He was asking himself whether it was the
compound interest that young Powys was calculating, and what Mrs.
Fennell knew about it. All his spectres, after a moment of ineffectual
repression, were bursting forth again.

Mrs. Fennell had put on her best cap. She had put it on in the morning
before even she had sent Nancy with her message. It was a token to
herself of a great emergency, even if her son-in-law did not recognize
it as such. And she sat in state in her little drawing-room, which was
not adorned by any flowers from Brownlows at that moment, for Sara had
once more forgotten her duties, and had not for a long time gone to see
her grandmother. But there was more than the best cap to signalize the
emergency. The fact was, that its wearer was in a very real and genuine
state of excitement. It was not pretense but reality which freshened her
forehead under her grim bands of false hair, and made her eyes shine
from amid their wrinkles. She had seated herself in state on a high
arm-chair, with a high foot-stool: but it was because, really and
without pretense, she had something to say which warranted all her
preparations. A gleam of pleasure flashed across her face when she heard
Mr. Brownlow knock at the door. “I thought he’d come sooner than one,”
she said, with irrepressible satisfaction, even though Nancy was
present. She would not betray the secret to the maid whom she did not
trust, but she could not but make a little display to her of the power
she still retained. “I knew he’d come,” she went on, with exultation; to
which Nancy, on her part, could not but give a provoking reply.

“Them as plots against the innocent always comes early,” said Nancy.
“I’ve took notice of that afore now.”

“And who is it in this house that plots against the innocent?” said Mrs.
Fennell, with trembling rage. “Take you care what you say to them that’s
your mistress, and more than your mistress. You’re old, and you’d find
it harder than you think to get another home like this. Go and bring me
the things I told you of. You’ve got the money. If it wasn’t for
curiosity and the key-hole, you’d been gone before now.”

“And if it wasn’t as there’s something to be cur’us about it you
wouldn’t have sent me, not you,” said Nancy, which was so near the truth
that Mrs. Fennell trembled in her chair. But Nancy did not feel disposed
to go to extremities, and as Mr. Brownlow entered she disappeared. He
had grown pale on his way up the stairs. The moment had come when,
perhaps, he must hear his own secret discovery proclaimed as it were on
the housetop, and it can not be denied that he had grown pale.

“Well?” he said, sitting down opposite to his mother-in-law on the
nearest chair. His breath and his courage were both gone, and he could
not find another word to say.

“Well, John Brownlow,” she said, not without a certain triumph mingled
with her agitation. “But before I say a word let us make sure that Nancy
and her long ears is out of the way.”

Mr. Brownlow rose with a certain reluctance, opened the door, and looked
up and down the stair. When he came in again a flush had taken the place
of his paleness, and he came and drew his chair close to Mrs. Fennell,
bending forward toward her. “What is the matter?” he said; “is it any
thing you want, or any thing I can do for you? Tell me what it is!”

“If it was any thing as I wanted it might pass,” said Mrs. Fennell, with
a little bitterness; “you know well it wasn’t that you were thinking of.
But I don’t want to lose time. There’s no time to be lost, John
Brownlow. What I’ve got to say to you is that _she’s_ been to see me.
I’ve seen her with my own eyes.”

“Who?” said Mr. Brownlow.

Then the two looked at each other. She, keen, eager, and old, with the
cunning of age in her face, a heartless creature beyond all impressions
of honesty or pity–he, a man, very open to such influences, with a
heart both true and tender, and yet as eager, more anxious than she.
They faced each other, he with eyes which, notwithstanding their present
purpose, “shone clear with honor,” looking into her bleared and
twinkling orbs. What horrible impulse was it that, for the first time,
united two such different beings thus?

“I’ve seen her,” said Mrs. Fennell. “There’s no good in naming names.
She’s turned up at last. I might have played you false, John Brownlow,
and made better friends for myself, but I thought of my Bessie’s bairns,
and I played you true. She came to see me yesterday. My heart’s beating
yet, and I can’t get it stopped. I’ve seen her–seen her with my own
eyes.”

“That woman? Phœbe–?” Mr. Brownlow’s voice died away in his throat;
he could not pronounce the last word. Cold drops of perspiration rose to
his forehead. He sank back in his chair, never taking his eyes from the
weird old woman who kept nodding her head at him, and gave no other
reply. Thus it had come upon him at last without any disguise. His face
was as white as if he had fainted; his strong limbs shook; his eyes were
glassy and without expression. Had he been any thing but a strong man,
healthy in brain and in frame, he would have had a fit. But he was
healthy and strong; so strong that the horrible crisis passed over him,
and he came to himself by degrees, and was not harmed.

“But you did not know her,” he said, with a gasp. “You never saw her;
you told me so. How could you tell it was she?”

“Tell, indeed!” said Mrs. Fennell, with scorn; “me that knew her mother
so well, and Fennell that was her blood relation! But she did not make
any difficulty about it. She told me her name, and asked all about her
old mother, and if she ever forgave her, and would have cried about it,
the fool, though she’s near as old as me.”

“Then she did not know?” said Mr. Brownlow, with a great jump of his
laboring breast.

“Know! I never gave her time to say what she knew or what she did not
know,” cried Mrs. Fennell; “do you think I was going to have her there,
hanging on, a-asking questions, and may be Nancy coming in that knew her
once? I hope I know better than that, for my Bessie’s children’s sake. I
packed her off, that was what I did. I asked her how she could dare to
come nigh me as was an honest woman, and had nothing to do with fools
that run away. I told her she broke her mother’s heart, and so she
would, if she had had a heart to break. I sent her off quicker than she
came. You have no call to be dissatisfied with me.”

Here John Brownlow’s heart, which was in his breast all this time, gave
a great throb of indignation and protest. But he stifled it, and said
nothing. He had to bring himself down to the level of his
fellow-conspirator. He had no leisure to be pitiful: a little more
courtesy or a little less, what did it matter? He gave a sigh, which was
almost like a groan, to relieve himself a little, but he could not
speak.

“Oh yes, she came to me to be her friend,” said the old woman, with
triumph: “talking of her mother, indeed! If her mother had had the heart
of a Christian she would have provided for my poor Fennell and me. And
to ask me to wrong my Bessie’s children for a woman I never saw–”

“What did she ask you?” said Mr. Brownlow, sternly; “better not to talk
about hearts. What did she know? what did she say?”

“John Brownlow,” said Mrs. Fennell, “you’ve not to speak like that to
me, when I’ve just been doing you a service against myself, as it were.
But it was not for you. Don’t you think it was for you. It was for my
Bessie’s bairns. What do you think she would know? She’s been away for
years and years. She’s been a-soldiering at the other side of the world.
But I could have made her my friend forever, and got a good provision,
and no need to ask for any thing I want. Don’t you think I can’t see
that. It was for their sake.”

Mr. Brownlow waved his hand impatiently; but still it was true that he
had brought himself to her level, and was in her power. After this there
was a silence, broken only by the old woman’s exclamations of triumph.
“Oh yes; I sent her away. I am not one that thinks of myself, though I
might have made a kind friend,” said Mrs. Fennell; and her son intently
sat and listened to her, gradually growing insensible to the honor,
thinking of the emergency alone.

“Did she say any thing about her son?” he asked at last; he glanced
round the room as he did so with a little alarm. He would scarcely have
been surprised had he seen young Powys standing behind him with that
calculation of compound interest in his hand.

“I don’t know about no son,” said Mrs. Fennell. “Do you think I gave her
time to talk? I tell you I packed her off faster, a deal faster, than
she came. The impudence to come to me! But she knows you, John Brownlow,
and if she goes to you, you had best mind what you say. Folk think
you’re a good lawyer, but I never had any opinion of your law. You’re a
man that would blurt a thing out, and never think if it was prudent or
not. If she goes to you, she’ll get it all out of you, unless you send
her to me–ay, send her to me. To come and cry about her mother, the old
fool, and not far short of my age!”

“What was she like?” said Mr. Brownlow again. He did not notice the
superfluous remarks she made. He took her answer into his mind, and that
was all; and as for her opinion of himself, what did that matter to
him? At any other time he would have smiled.

“Like? I don’t know what she was like,” said Mrs. Fennell; “always a
plain thing all her life, though she would have made me think that
Fennell once–stuff and nonsense, and a pack of lies–like? She was
like–Nancy, that kind of tall creature. Nancy was a kind of a relation,
too. But as for what she was like in particular, I didn’t pay no
attention. She was dressed in things I wouldn’t have given sixpence for,
and she was in a way–”

“What sort of a way? what brought her here? How did she find you out?”
said Mr. Brownlow. “Afterward I will listen to your own opinions. I beg
of you to be a little more exact. Tell me simply the facts now. Remember
of how much importance it is.”

“If I had not known it was of importance I should not have sent for
you,” said Mrs. Fennell; “and as for my opinions, I’ll give them when I
think proper. You are not the man to dictate to me. She was in a way,
and she came to me to stand her friend. She thought I had influence,
like. I didn’t tell her, John Brownlow, as she was all wrong, and I
hadn’t no influence. It’s what I ought to have, me that brought the
mother of these children into the world; but folks forget that, and also
that it was of us the money came. I told her nothing, not a word. It’s
least said that’s soonest mended. I sent her away, that’s all that you
want to know.”

Mr. Brownlow shook his head. It was not all he wanted to know. He knew
it was not over, and ended with this one appearance, though his dreadful
auxiliary thought so in her ignorance. For him it was but the beginning,
the first step in her work. There were still five months in which she
could make good her claims, and find them out first if she did not know
them, prove any thing, every thing, as people did in such cases. But he
did not enter into vain explanations.

“It is not all over,” he said. “Do not think so. She will find something
out, and she will turn up again. I want to know where she lives, and how
she found you out. We are not done with her yet,” said Mr. Brownlow,
again wiping the heavy moisture from his brow.

“You are done with her if you are not a fool to go and seek her,” said
Mrs. Fennell. “I can’t tell you what she is, nor where she is. She’s
Phœbe Thomson. Oh, yes, you’re frightened when I say her
name–frightened that Nancy should hear; but I sent Nancy out on
purpose. I am not one to forget. Do you think I got talking with her to
find out every thing? I sent her away. That’s what I did for the
children, not asking and asking, and making a talk, and putting things
into her head as if she was of consequence. I turned her to the door,
that’s what I did; and if you’re not a fool, John Brownlow, or if you
have any natural love for your children, you’ll do the same.”

Again Mr. Brownlow groaned within himself, but he could not free himself
from this associate. It was one of the consequences of evil-doing, the
first obvious one which had come in his way. He had to bear her insults,
to put himself on her level, even to be, as she was, without
compunction. Their positions were changed, and it was he now who was in
the old woman’s power; she had a hundred supposed injuries hoarded up in
her mind to avenge upon him, even while she did him substantial service.
And she was cruel with the remorseless cold-blooded cruelty of a
creature whose powers of thought and sympathy were worn out. He wondered
at her as he sat and saw her old eyes glisten with pleasure at the
thought of having sent this poor injured robbed woman away. And he was
her accomplice, her instigator, and it was for Bessie’s children. The
thought made him sick and giddy. It was only with an effort that he
recovered himself.

“When a woman comes back after twenty-five years, she does not disappear
again,” he said. “I am not blaming you. You did as was natural to you.
But tell me everything. It might have been an impostor–you never saw
her. How can you be sure it was Phœbe Thomson? If Nancy even had been
here–”

“I tell you it _was_ Phœbe Thomson,” said Mrs. Fennell, raising her
voice. And then all of a sudden she became silent. Nancy had come
quietly up stairs, and had opened the door, and was looking in upon her
mistress. She might have heard more, she might not even have heard that.
She came in and put down some small purchases on the table. She was
quite self-possessed and observant, looking as she always did, showing
no signs of excitement. And Mr. Brownlow looked at her steadily. Like
Nancy! but Mrs. Powys was not like Nancy. He concluded as this passed
through his mind that Mrs. Fennell had named Nancy only as the first
person that occurred to her. There was no likeness–not the slightest.
It went for nothing, and yet it was a kind of relief to him all the
same.

“Why do you come in like that, without knocking, when I’ve got some one
with me?” said Mrs. Fennell, with tremulous wrath. “It’s like a common
maid-of-all-work, that knows no better. I have told you that before.”

“It’s seldom as one of the family is here,” said Nancy, “or I’d think
on’t. When things happen so rare, folks forgets. Often and often I say
as you’re left too much alone; but what with the lady yesterday and Mr.
Brownlow to-day–”

“What lady yesterday?” cried Mrs. Fennell. “What do you know about a
lady yesterday? Who ever said there was a lady yesterday? If you speak
up to me bold like that, I’ll send you away.”

“Oh, it’s nothing to me,” said Nancy. “You know as I was out. They most
always comes when I’m out. Fine folks is not partial to me; but if
you’re a-going to be better looked to, and your own flesh and blood to
come and see you, at your age, it will be good news to me.”

“My own flesh and blood don’t think a great deal about an old woman,”
said Mrs. Fennell, swallowing the bait. “I’m little good to any body
now. I’ve seen the day when it was different. And I can still be of use
to them that’s kind to me,” she said, with significance. Mr. Brownlow
sat and listened to all this, and it smote him with disgust. He got up,
and though it cost him an effort to do so, held out his hand to the old
woman in her chair.

“Tell me, or tell Jack, if you want anything,” he said. “I can’t stay
now; and if any thing occurs let me know,” he added. He took no notice
of the vehement shaking of her hand as she turned toward Nancy. He
looked at Nancy again, though he did not like her. She at least was not
to be in the conspiracy, and he had a satisfaction in showing that at
least he was not afraid of her. “If there is any thing that can make
your mistress more comfortable,” he said, sternly, “I have already
desired you to let me know; and you understand that she is not to be
bullied either by you or any one else–good-day.”

“Bullied!” said Nancy, in consternation; but he did not condescend to
look at her again. He went away silently, like a man in a dream. Up to
this moment he had been able to doubt. It was poor comfort, yet there
was some comfort in it. When the evidence looked the most clear and
overwhelming, he had still been able to say to himself that he had no
direct proof, that it was not his business, that still it might all be a
mistake. Now that last standing-ground was taken from under his feet.
Mrs. Thomson’s heir had made herself known, she had told her name and
her parentage, and claimed kindred with his mother-in-law, who, if she
had been an impostor, could have convicted her; and the old woman, on
the contrary, had been convinced. It was a warm summer day, but Mr.
Brownlow shivered with cold as he walked along the familiar streets. If
she had but come twenty years, five-and-twenty years ago! If he had but
followed his own instincts of right and wrong, and left this odious
money untouched! It was for Bessie’s sake he had used it, to make his
marriage practicable, and now the whirligig of time had brought about
its revenges. Bessie’s daughter would have to pay for her mother’s good
fortune. He felt himself swing from side to side as he went along, so
confused was he with the multitude of his thoughts, and recovered
himself only with a violent effort. The decisive moment had come. It had
come too soon–before the time was out at which Phœbe Thomson would
be harmless. He could not put himself off any longer with the pretext
that he was not sure. And young Powys in the office, whom he had taken
in, partly in kindness and partly with evil intent, sat under his eyes
calculating the amount of that frightful interest which would ruin him.
Mr. Brownlow passed several of his acquaintances in the street without
noticing them, but not without attracting notice. He was so pale that
the strangers who passed turned round to look at him. No farther
delay–no putting off–no foolish excuses to himself. Whatever had to be
done must be done quickly. Unconsciously he had quickened his pace, and
went on at a speed which few men could have kept up with. He was strong,
and his excitement gave him new strength. It must be done, one thing or
another; there was no way of escaping the alternative now.

There are natures which are driven wild and frantic by a great
excitement, and there are others which are calmed and steadied in face
of an emergency. Mr. Brownlow entered his private office with the
feeling of a man who was about to die there, and might never come out
alive. He did not answer any one–even waved Wrinkell away, who was
coming to him with a bag of papers. “I have some urgent private
business,” he said; “take every thing to my son, and don’t let me be
disturbed.” He said this in the office, so that every one heard him; and
though he looked at nobody, he could see Powys look up from his
calculations, and Jack come in some surprise to the open door of his
room. They both heard him, both the young men, and wondered. Jack, too,
was dark and self-absorbed, engaged in a struggle with himself. And they
looked at the master, the father, and said to themselves, in their
youthful folly, that it was easy for him to talk of not being disturbed.
What could he have to trouble him–he who could do as he liked, and whom
nobody interfered with? Mr. Brownlow, for his part, saw them both
without looking at them, and a certain bitter smile at his son’s reserve
and silence came to him inwardly. Jack thought it a great matter to be
checked in his boyish love-making; while, good heavens! how different
were the burdens, how much harder the struggles of which the boy was
ignorant! Mr. Brownlow went in and shut the door. He was alone
then–shut out from every body. No one could tell or even guess, the
conflict in his mind–not even his young adversary outside, who was
reckoning up the compound interest. He paused a little, and sat down,
and bent his head on his hands. Was he praying? He could not have told
what it was. It was not prayer in words. If it had been, it would have
been a prayer for strength to do wrong. That was what he was struggling
after–strength to shut out all compunctions–to be steadily cruel,
steadily false. Could God have granted him that? but his habits were
those of a good man all the same. He paused when he was in perplexity,
and was silent, and collected his thoughts, not without a kind of mute
customary appeal; and then flung his hands away from his face, and
started to his feet with a thrill of horror. “Help me to sin!” was that
what it had been in his heart to say?

He spent the whole day in the office, busy with very hard and heavy
work. He went minutely into all those calculations which he supposed
young Powys to be making. And when he had put down the last cipher, he
opened all his secret places, took out all his memorandums, every
security he possessed, all his notes of investments, the numberless
items which composed his fortune. He worked at his task like a clerk
making up ordinary accounts, yet there was something in his silent
speed, his wrapt attention, the intense exactness of every note, which
was very different from the steady indifference of daily work. When he
had put every thing down, and made his last calculation, he laid the two
papers together on his desk. A little glimmering of hope had, perhaps,
awakened in him, from the very fact of doing something. He laid them
down side by side, and the little color that had come into his face
vanished out of it in an instant. If there had been but a little over!
If he could have felt that he had something left, he might still, at the
eleventh hour, have had strength to make the sacrifice; but the figures
which stared him in the face meant ruin. Restitution would cost him
every thing–more than every thing. It would leave him in debt; it would
mortgage even that business which the Brownlows of Masterton had
maintained so long. It would plunge his children down, down in an
instant out of the place they had been educated to fill. It would take
from himself the means of being as he was–one of the benefactors of the
county, foremost in all good works. Good works! when it was with the
inheritance of the widow and the orphans that he did them. All this came
before him as clearly as if it had been written in lines of light–an
uneducated, imprudent woman–a creature who had run away from her
friends, abandoned her mother–a boy who was going to the bad–a family
unaccustomed to wealth, who would squander and who would not enjoy it.
And, on the other hand, himself who had increased it, used it well,
served both God and man with it. The struggle was long, and it was hard,
but in the end the natural result came. His half-conscious appeal was
answered somehow, though not from on high. The strength came to him
which he had asked for–strength to do wrong. But all the clerks
started, and Mr. Wrinkell himself took off his spectacles, and seriously
considered whether he should send for a doctor, when in the evening,
just before the hour for leaving the office, Mr. Brownlow suddenly
opened the door and called young Powys into his private room.

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