POWYS’S BITS OF PAPER

Mr. Brownlow, perhaps, did not know very well what he meant when he
called young Powys into his room. He was in one of those strange states
of mental excitement in which a man is at once confused and clear;
incapable of seeing before him what he is about to do, yet as prompt and
distinct in the doing of it as if it had been premeditated to the last
detail. He could not have explained why nor told what it was he proposed
to himself; in short, he had in his own mind proposed nothing to
himself. He was swayed only by a vague, intense, and overwhelming
necessity to have the matter before him set straight somehow, and,
confused as his own mind was, and little as he knew of his own
intentions, he yet went on, as by the directest inspiration, marching
boldly, calmly, yet wildly, in a kind of serious madness, into the
darkness of this unknown way. He called the young man to him in sharp,
decided tones, as if he knew exactly what he wanted, and was ready to
enter fully into it at once; and yet he did not in the least know what
he wanted, nor what question he was to ask, nor what he was to say the
next moment; the only thing that helped him was, that as he looked out
of his office to call Powys, he could see him pick up hastily and put in
his pocket the bits of paper all dotted over with calculations, which he
had already remarked on the young man’s desk.

“Sit down,” said Mr. Brownlow; “I have something to say to you;” and he
resumed his own seat at his writing-table as if there had been nothing
particular in the conference, and began mechanically to arrange the
papers before him: as for Powys, he put his hand upon the back of the
chair which stood on the other side of the table, and waited, but did
not sit down, being bewildered a little, though not half so much as his
employer was, by this sudden summons.

“Sit down,” said Mr. Brownlow–“sit down; I want to speak to you: I hope
you know that I have always intended to be your friend–”

“Intended! sir,” said Powys; “I know that you have been my friend, and a
far better friend than I deserved–” Here he made one of those pauses of
embarrassment which sometimes mean so much, and often mean so little.
Mr. Brownlow, who knew more than Powys did, took it to signify a great
deal, and the idea gave him strength to proceed; and the fact is that
for once the two, unknown to each other, were thinking of the same
thing–of the bits of paper covered with figures that were in Powys’s
pocket–only their thoughts ran in a very different strain.

“That must be decided rather by the future than by the past,” said Mr.
Brownlow. “I can say for myself without any doubt thus far, that I have
meant to be your friend–but I must have your confidence in return; I do
not think you can have any more trustworthy counselor.” As Mr. Brownlow
said this, it seemed to him that some one else, some unseen third party,
was putting the words into his mouth; and his heart gave a flutter as he
said them, though it was little in accordance either with his age or
character that the heart should take any such prominent part in his
concerns.

As for the young man, there came over his face a quick flush, as of
shame. He touched with his hand instinctively, and without knowing it,
the breast-pocket in which these papers were–all of which actions were
distinct and full of meaning to the anxious eyes that were watching
him–and he faltered as he spoke. “I know that you would be my most
trustworthy counselor–and I don’t know how to thank you,” he said; but
he had lowered his voice and cast down his eyes. He stood holding the
back of the chair, and it trembled in his grasp. He could not meet the
gaze that was fixed upon him. He stood shuffling his feet, looking down,
red with embarrassment, confusion, and shame. Was it that he felt
himself a traitor? eating the Brownlow’s bread, receiving their
kindness, and plotting against them? It seemed to his companion as clear
as day.

“Sit down,” said Mr. Brownlow, feeling his advantage; “let us talk of it
as friends–” and then he himself made a pause, and clenched his hand
unawares, and felt his heart contract as he put the last decisive
question. “What are those calculations you have been making all day?”

Young Powys started, and became violently red, and looked up suddenly
into his employer’s face. No doubt this was what he had been thinking
of; but the question was so sudden, so point-blank, that it dispersed
all the involuntary softenings of which he had been conscious, and
brought back to him all his youthful pride and _amour propre_ and
reserve about his own affairs. He looked Mr. Brownlow full in the face,
and his agitation took a different form. “Calculations, sir!” he said,
with even a touch of indignation in his voice; and then he too stopped,
lest he should be uncourteous to his employer, who he was confident
wished him well, though he was so strangely curious. “The only
calculations I have made are about my own affairs,” he went on. “They
are of no interest to any one. I am sorry you should have thought I was
taking up my time–”

“I did not think of your time,” said Mr. Brownlow, with an impatient
sigh. “I have seen many young men like you who have–who have–gone
wrong–from lack of experience and knowledge of the world. I wish to
serve you. Perhaps–it is possible–I may have partly divined what is
on your mind. Can’t you see that it would be best in every way to make a
confidant of me?”

All this the lawyer said involuntarily, as it were, the words being put
into his mouth. They were false words, and yet they were true. He wanted
to cheat and ruin the young man before him, and yet he wanted to serve
him. He desired his confidence that he might betray it, and yet he felt
disposed to guide and counsel him as if he had been his son. The
confusion of his mind was such that it became a kind of exaltation.
After all he meant him well–what he would do for him would be the best.
It might not be justice–justice was one thing; kindness, friendship,
bounty, another–and these last he was ready to give. Thus, in the
bewilderment of motives and sentiments that existed in his mind, he came
to find himself again, as it were, and to feel that he did really mean
well to the boy. “I wish to serve you,” he repeated, with a kind of
eagerness. Would not this be to serve him better than by giving to his
inexperienced hands a fairy fortune of which he would not know how to
make use? These thoughts went vaguely but powerfully through Mr.
Brownlow’s mind as he spoke. And the result was that he looked up in the
young man’s face with a sense of uprightness which had for some time
deserted him. It would be best in every way that there should be
confidence between them–best for the youth, who, after all, had he ever
so good a case, would probably be quite unaware how to manage it–and
best, unquestionably best, for himself, as showing at once what he had
to hope or fear. Of this there could be no doubt.

As for Powys, he was touched, and at the same time alarmed. It was the
same subject which occupied them both, but yet they looked upon it with
very different eyes. The Canadian knew what was in those scraps of paper
with their lines of figures and awful totals, and it seemed to him that
sooner than show them to any one, sooner than make a clean breast of
what was in them, he would rather die. Yet the kindness went to his
heart, and made him in his own eyes a monster. “Divined!” he said half
to himself, with a look of horror. If Mr. Brownlow had divined it, it
seemed to Powys that he never could hold up his head before him again.
Shame would stand between them, or something he thought shame. He had
not done much that was wrong, but he could have shrunk into the very
ground at the idea that his thoughts and calculations were known. In
spite of himself he cast a piteous glance at the whiteness of his
elbows–was that how it came about that Mr. Brownlow divined? Pride,
shame, gratitude, compunction, surged up in his mind, into his very eyes
and throat, so that he could not speak or look at the patron who was so
good to him, yet whom he could not yield to. “Sir,” he stammered, when
he had got a little command of himself–“you are mistaken. I–I have
nothing on my mind–nothing more than every man has who has a–a–life
of his own. Indeed, sir,” the poor youth continued with eagerness,
“don’t think I am ungrateful–but I–I–_can’t_ tell you. I can’t tell
my own mother. It is my own fault. It is nothing to any other creature.
In short,” he added, breaking off with an effort, and forcing a smile,
“it _is_ nothing–nothing!–only I suppose that I am unaccustomed to the
world–”

“Sit down,” said Mr. Brownlow; “come nearer to me, and sit down upon
this chair. You are very young–”

“I am five-and-twenty,” said Powys. He said it hastily, answering what
he thought was a kind of accusation; and the words struck the lawyer
like a blow. It was not new to him, and yet the very statement of that
momentous number seemed to carry a certain significance. The ill-omened
fortune which made these two adversaries had come to the one just when
the other was born.

“Well,” said Mr. Brownlow, who felt his utterance stopped by these
innocent words, “it does not matter. Sit down; I have still a great deal
to say–”

And then he stopped with a gasp, and there was a pause like a pause in
the midst of a battle. If Powys had not been preoccupied by the subject
which to him was so absorbing, though he denied its interest to any
other, he could not have failed to be struck by the earnestness, and
suppressed excitement, and eager baffled looks of his employer. But he
was blinded by his own anxieties, and by that unconscious
self-importance of youth which sees nothing wonderful in the fact of
other people’s interest in its own fortunes. He thought Mr. Brownlow was
kind; it did not occur to him that a stronger motive was necessary for
these persistent questions and for this intense interest. He was not
vain–but yet it came natural to receive such attention, and his mind
was not sufficiently disengaged to be surprised.

As for the lawyer, he paused and took breath, and looked into the frank
yet clouded face which was so open and communicative, and yet would not,
could not, reveal to him the secret he wanted to seize. It was not
skill, it was not cunning, that preserved the young man’s secret–was it
innocence? Had he been mistaken? was there really in Powys’s
consciousness at least no such secret, but only some youthful trouble,
some boyish indiscretion, that was “on his mind.” As Mr. Brownlow
paused, and looked at his young companion, this thought gradually shaped
itself within him, and for the moment it gave him a strange relief. He
too was absorbed and preoccupied, and thrust out of the region of such
light as might have been thrown on the subject by the whiteness of the
seams of the young fellow’s coat; and then he had come to be in such
deadly earnest that any lighter commonplace explanation would have
seemed an insult to him. Yet he paused, and after a few moments felt as
if a truce had been proclaimed. It had not come yet to the last struggle
for death or life. There was still time to carry on negotiations, to
make terms, to convert the enemy into a firm friend and supporter. This
conviction brought comfort to his mind, notwithstanding that half an
hour before he had started up in the temerity of despair, and vowed to
himself that, for good or evil, the decisive step must be taken at once.
Now the clouds of battle rolled back, and a soft sensation of peace fell
upon Mr. Brownlow’s soul–peace at least for a time. It melted his heart
in spite of himself. It made him think of his home, and his child, and
the gentle evening that awaited him after the excitement of the day; and
then his eye fell upon Powys again.

“I have still a great deal to say,” he went on–and his voice had
changed and softened beyond all doubt, and Powys, himself surprised, had
perceived the change, though he had not an idea what it meant–“I have
been pleased with you, Powys. I am not sure that you have quite kept up
during the last few weeks; but you began very well, and if you choose to
steady yourself, and put away any delusion that may haunt you”–here Mr.
Brownlow made a little pause to give force to his words–“you may be of
great service to me. I took you only on trial, you know, and you had the
junior clerk’s place; but now I think I am justified in treating you
better–after this your salary shall be double–”

Powys gave a great start in his seat, and looked at Mr. Brownlow with a
look of stupefaction. “Double!” he cried, with an almost hysterical
gasp. He thought his ears or his imagination were deceiving him. His
wonder took all the expression, almost all the intelligence, out of his
face. He sat gazing with his mouth open, waiting to hear what it could
mean.

“I will double your salary from the present time,” said Mr. Brownlow,
smiling in spite of himself.

Then the young man rose up. His face became the color of fire. The tears
sprang into his eyes. “This was why you said you divined!” he said, with
a voice that was full of tears and an ineffable softness. His gratitude
was beyond words. His eyes seemed to shoot arrows into Mr. Brownlow’s
very soul–arrows of sharp thanks, and praise, and grateful applause,
which the lawyer could not bear. The words made him start, too, and
threw a sudden flood of light upon the whole subject; but Mr. Brownlow
could not get the good of this, for he was abashed and shame-struck by
the tender, undoubting, half-filial gratitude in the young man’s eyes.

“But I don’t deserve it,” cried Powys, in his eagerness–“I don’t
deserve it, though you are so good. I have not been doing my work as I
ought–I know I have not. These bills have been going between me and my
wits. I have not known what I was doing sometimes. Oh! sir, forgive me;
I don’t know what to say to you, but I don’t deserve it–the other
fellows deserve it better than I.”

“Never mind the other fellows,” said Mr. Brownlow, collecting himself;
“I mean to make a different use of you. You may be sure that it is not
out of goodness I am doing this,” he added, with a strange smile that
Powys could not understand–“you may be sure it is because I see in you
certain–certain–capabilities–”

Mr. Brownlow paused, for his lips were dry; he was telling the truth,
but he did not mean it to be received as truth. This was how he went on
from one step to another. To tell a lie, or to tell a truth as if it
were a pleasant fiction, which was worst? The lie seemed the most
straightforward, the most innocent of the two; and this was why his lips
were dry, and he had to make a pause in his speech.

Powys sat down again, and leaned on the table, and looked across at his
master, his benefactor. That was how the young man was calling him in
his heart. His eyes were shining as eyes only do after they have been
moistened by tears. They were soft, tender, eager, moved by those last
words into a deeper gratitude still, an emotion which awoke all his
faculties. “If I have any capabilities,” he said, “I wish they were a
hundred and a hundred times more. I can’t tell you, sir–you can’t
imagine–how much you have done for me in a moment. And I was ashamed
when you said you had divined! I have been very miserable. I have not
known what to do.”

“So that was all,” said Mr. Brownlow, drawing a long breath. “My young
friend, I told you you should confide in me. I know sixty pounds a year
is very little, and so you must remember is twice sixty pounds a year–”

“Ah, but it is double,” said young Powys, with a tremulous smile. “But I
have not worked for it,” he went on, clouding over–“I have not won it,
I know I don’t deserve it; only, sir, if you have something special–any
thing in this world, I don’t care how hard–that you mean to give me to
do–”

“Yes,” said Mr. Brownlow, “I have something very special; I can’t enter
upon the details just now. The others in the office are very well; but I
want some one I can depend upon, who will be devoted to me.”

Upon this the young man smiled; smiled so that his face lighted up all
over–every line in it answering as by an individual ray. “Devoted!” he
said, “I should think so indeed–not to the last drop of blood, for that
would do you no good–but to the last moment of work, whatever, however,
you please–”

“Take care,” said Mr. Brownlow, “you may be too grateful; when a man
promises too much he is apt to break down.”

“But I shall not break down,” said the Canadian. “You took me in first
when I had nobody to speak for me, and now you save from what is worse
than starving–from debt and hopeless struggles. And I was beginning to
lose heart; I felt as if we could not live on it, and nobody knew but
me. I beg your pardon sir, for speaking so much about myself–”

“No, no; go on about yourself,” said Mr. Brownlow. He was leaning back
on his chair like a man who had had a fit and was recovering from it.
His whole countenance had relaxed in a manner wonderful to behold. He
listened to the young fellow’s open-hearted babble as if it had been
celestial music. It was music to his ears. It distilled upon him like
the dew, as the Bible says, penetrating through and through, pervading
his whole being with a sense of blessed ease, and relief and repose. He
lay back in his chair and was content to listen. He did not care to move
or think, but only to realize that the crisis had passed over; that for
the moment all was still rest and security and peace. It was the best
proof how much his nerves had been tried in the former part of the day.

“But you must recollect,” he said at last, “that this great fortune you
have come into is, after all, only a hundred and twenty pounds a year;
it is a very small income. You will have to be careful; but if you get
into any difficulties again, the thing you ought to do is to come to me.
I will always be ready to give you my advice, and perhaps help, if you
want it. Don’t thank me again; I shall have a great many things for you
to do, which will make up.”

“Nothing will ever make up for the kindness,” said young Powys; and then
he perceived that his audience was over. Already even the lines were
beginning to tighten in Mr. Brownlow’s face. The young man withdrew and
went back to his desk, walking on air as he thought. It was a very small
matter to be so glad about, but yet there are circumstances in which ten
pounds to pay and only five pounds to pay it with will make as much
anguish as the loss of a battle or a kingdom–especially to the
inexperienced, the sensitive, and proud. This awful position he was
suddenly relieved from when he saw no hope. And no wonder that he was
elated. It was not a chronic malady to which he had grown accustomed.
The truth was he had never been in debt before all his life. This may be
accounted for by the fact that he had never had any money to speak of,
and that he had been brought up in the backwoods.

Mr. Brownlow did not change his position for some time after his clerk
had left him. Passion was new to him, though he was on the declining
side of life. The sharp tension, the sudden relief, the leap from
anxiety, suspicion, and present danger into calm and tranquillity, was
new to him. His mind had never been disturbed by such conflicts while he
was young, and accordingly they came now in all their freshness, with a
power beyond any thing in his experience, to his soul. Thus he continued
motionless, leaning back in his chair, taking the good of his respite.
He knew it was only a temporary respite; he knew the danger was not
past; but withal it was a comfort to him. And then, as he had this time
disquieted himself in vain, who could tell if perhaps his other fears
might vanish in the same way? God might be favorable to him, even though
perhaps his cause was not just such a cause as could with confidence be
put into God’s hands. It was not always justice that prevailed in this
world; and perhaps–So strangely does personal interest pervert the
mind, that this was how John Brownlow, an upright man by nature and by
long habit, calculated with himself. It seemed to him natural somehow
that God should enter into the conspiracy with him–for he meant no harm
even to the people who were to be his victims. Far from that; he meant,
on the contrary, bit by bit, to provide for them, to surround them with
comforts, to advance and promote in every way the young man whose
inheritance he had so long enjoyed. He meant to be as good to him as any
father, if only he could be successful in alienating forever and ever
his just right from him. Possibly he might still even carry out the plan
he had conceived and abandoned, and give the crown of all his
possessions, his beautiful child, to the lucky youth. Any thing but
justice. As he sat and rested, a certain sense of that satisfaction
which arises from happiness conferred came into Mr. Brownlow’s mind. In
the mean time, he had been very good to Powys. Poor young fellow! how
grateful, how elated, how joyous he was–and all about a hundred and
twenty pounds a year! His trouble had involved only a little money, and
how easy it was to make an end of that! It was not by a long way the
first time in Mr. Brownlow’s life at which this opportunity of bringing
light out of darkness had occurred to him. There were other clerks, and
other men not clerks, who could, if they would, tell a similar tale. He
had never been a hard man; he had been considerate, merciful, lending
like the righteous man, and little exacting as to his recompense. He had
served many in his day, and though he never boasted of it, he knew it.
Was it in reason to give up without a struggle his power of serving his
neighbors, all the admirable use he had made of his fortune, when he
might keep his fortune, and yet withal do better for the real heir than
if he gave it up to him? The sense of coming ruin, and the awful
excitement of that conflict for life and death which he had anticipated
when he called Powys into his office, had exhausted him so entirely that
he allowed himself to be soothed by all those softer thoughts. The
danger was not over–he knew that as well as any one; but he had a
reprieve. He had time to make of his adversary a devoted friend and
vassal, and it was even for his adversary’s good.

Such were the thoughts that went softly, as in a veiled and twilight
procession, through his mind. After a while he raised himself up, and
gathered together all the calculations at which he had been working so
hard, and locked all his private drawers, and put all his memorandums
by. As he did so, his halcyon state by degrees began to be invaded by
gleams of the every-day day-light. He had doubled Powys’s salary, and he
had a right to do so if he pleased; but yet he knew that when he told it
to Mr. Wrinkell, that functionary would be much surprised, and that a
sense of injury would be visible upon the countenances of the other
clerks. Certainly a man has a right to do what he likes with his own,
but then every man who does so must make up his mind to certain little
penalties. He will always be able to read the grudge of those who have
borne the burden and heat of the day in their faces, however silent they
may be; and even an emperor, much less a country lawyer, can not fail to
be conscious when he is tacitly disapproved of. How was he to tell
Wrinkell of it even? how to explain to him why he had taken so unusual a
step? The very fact was a kind of confession that something more was in
it than met the eye. And Jack–; but Jack and Wrinkell too would have
greater cause of astonishment still, which would throw even this into
the shade. Mr. Wrinkell knocked at Mr. Brownlow’s door when he had come
this length in his thoughts. The manager had not troubled him so long as
he had been alone and apparently busy; but after the long audience
accorded to young Powys, Mr. Wrinkell did not see how he could be shut
out. He came in accordingly, and already Mr. Brownlow saw the
disapproval in his eye. He was stately, which was no doubt a deportment
becoming a head clerk, but not precisely in the private office of his
principal; and he did not waste a single word in what he had to say. He
was concise almost to the point of abruptness; all of which particulars
of disapprobation Mr. Brownlow perceived at once.

“Wrinkell,” he said, when they had dismissed in this succinct way the
immediate business in hand, “I want to speak to you about young Powys. I
am interested in that young fellow. I want to raise his salary. But I
should like to know first what you have got to say.”

It was a hypocritical speech, but Mr. Wrinkell happily was not aware of
that; he pursed up his lips and screwed them tight together, as if, in
the first place, he did not mean to say any thing, but relented after a
moment’s pause.

“At the present moment, sir,” said Mr. Wrinkell, “I am doubtful what to
say. Had you asked me three months since, I should have answered, ‘By
all means.’ If you had asked me one month since, I should have said,
‘Certainly not.’ Now, I avow my penetration is baffled, and I don’t know
what to say.”

“You mean he is not doing so well as he did at first?” said Mr.
Brownlow. “Nobody ever does that I know of. And better than he did
later? Is that what you mean to say?”

“Being very concise,” said Mr. Wrinkell, slowly, “I should say that was
a sort of a summary. When he came first he was the best beginner I ever
had in hand; and I did not leave him without signs of my approval. I had
him to my ’umble ’ome, Mr. Brownlow, as perhaps you are aware, and gave
him the opportunity of going to chapel with us. I don’t hesitate to
avow,” said Mr. Wrinkell, with a little solemnity, “that I had begun to
regard him as a kind of son of my own.”

“And then there was a change?” said the lawyer, with a smile.

“There was a great change,” said Mr. Wrinkell. “It was no more the same
young man–a cheerful bright young fellow that could laugh over his tea
of a Sunday, and walk steadily to chapel after with Mrs. Wrinkell and
myself. We are not of those Christians who think a little cheerfulness
out of season of a Sunday. But he changed of that. He would have no tea,
which is a bad sign in a young man. He yawned in my very pew by Mrs.
Wrinkell’s side. It grieved me, sir, as if he had been my own flesh and
blood; but of course we had to give up. The last few weeks he has been
steadier,” Mr. Wrinkell added, quickly; “there can’t be any doubt about
that.”

“But he might decline tea and yawn over a sermon without going to the
bad,” said Mr. Brownlow. “I hope so at least, for they are two things I
often do myself.”

“Excuse me,” said Mr. Wrinkell, who liked now and then to take high
ground. “There is all the difference. I fully admit the right of private
judgment. You judge for yourself; but a young man who has kind friends
anxious to serve him–there is all the difference. But he has been
steady of late,” the head clerk added, with candor; “I gladly
acknowledge that.”

“Perhaps he had something on his mind,” said Mr. Brownlow. “At all
events, I don’t think much harm has come of it. I take an interest in
that young fellow. You will double his salary, Mr. Wrinkell, next
quarter-day.”

“Double it!” said Mr. Wrinkell, with a gasp. He fell back from his
position by the side of the table, and grew pale with horror. “Double
it?” he added, after a pause, inquiringly. “Did I understand, sir? was
_that_ what you said?”

“That was what I said,” said Mr. Brownlow; and, after the habit of
guilty men, he began immediately to defend himself. “I trust,” he said,
unconsciously following the old precedent, “that I have a right to do
what I like with my own.”

“Certainly–certainly,” said Mr. Wrinkell; and then there was a pause.
“I shall put these settlements in hand at once,” he resumed, with what
the lawyer felt was something like eagerness to escape the subject. “Mr.
Robinson is waiting for the instructions you have just given me. And the
Wardell case is nearly ready for your revision–and–May I ask if
the–the–increase you mention in Mr. Powys’s salary is to begin from
next quarter-day, or from the last?”

“From the last,” said Mr. Brownlow, with stern brevity.

“Very well, sir,” said Mr. Wrinkell. “I can not conceal from you that it
may have a bad effect–a painful effect.”

“Upon whom?” said Mr, Brownlow.

“Upon the other clerks. They are pretty steady–neither very good nor
very bad; and he has been both good and bad,” said Mr. Wrinkell,
stoutly. “It will have an unpleasant effect. They will say we make
favorites, Mr. Brownlow. They have already said as much in respect to
myself.”

“They had better mind their own affairs,” was all Mr. Brownlow said;
but, nevertheless, when he went out into the office afterward, he
imagined (prematurely, for it had not yet been communicated to them)
that he read disgust in the eyes of his clerks; and he was not unmoved
by it, any more than General Haman was by the contempt of the old man
who sat in the gate.