SIR CHARLES MOTHERWELL

The guests at Brownlows next morning got up with minds a little
relieved. Notwithstanding the evident excitement of the family, things
had passed over quietly enough, and nothing had happened, and
indifferent spectators easily accustom themselves to any atmosphere, and
forget the peculiarities in it. There might still be a smell of
brimstone in the air, but their organs were habituated, and failed to
perceive it. After breakfast Sir Charles Motherwell had a little talk
with Mr. Brownlow, as his smoked his morning cigar in the avenue; but
nobody, except perhaps his mother, who was alive to his movements, took
any notice of what he was doing. Once more the men in the house were
left to themselves; but it did not strike them so oddly as on the day
before. And Sara, for her part, was easier in her mind. She could not
help it. It might be wicked even, but she could not help it. She was
sorry Mrs. Preston should die; but since Providence had so willed it, no
doubt it was the best for every body. This instinctive argument came to
Sara as to all the rest. Nobody was doing it. It was Providence, and it
was for the best. And Jack would marry Pamela, and Sara would go with
her father to Masterton, and, but for the shock of Mrs. Preston’s death,
which would wear off in the course of nature, all would go merry as a
marriage bell. This was how she had planned it all out to herself; and
she saw no difficulty in it. Accordingly, she had very much recovered
her spirits. Of course, the house at Masterton would not be so pleasant
as Brownlows; at least–in some things it might not be so
pleasant–but–And so, though she might be a little impatient, and a
little preoccupied, things were decidedly brighter with Sara that
morning. She was in the dining-room as usual, giving the housekeeper the
benefit of her views about dinner, when Sir Charles came in. He saw her,
and he lingered in the hall waiting for her, and her vengeful project of
the previous night occurred to Sara. If she was to be persecuted any
more about him, she would let him propose; charitably, feelingly, she
had staved off that last ceremony; but now, if she was to be threatened
with him–if he was to be thrown in her face–And he looked very
sheepish and awkward as he stood in the hall, pulling at the black
mustache which was so like a respirator. She saw him, and she prolonged
his suspense, poor fellow. She bethought herself of a great many things
she had to say to the housekeeper. And he stood outside, like a faithful
dog, and waited. When she saw that he would not go away, Sara gave in to
necessity. “Lady Motherwell is in the morning-room, and all the rest,”
she said, as she joined him; and then turned to lead the way up stairs.

“I don’t want to see my mother,” he said, with a slight shudder, she
thought; and then he made a very bold effort. “Fine morning,” said Sir
Charles; “aw–would you mind taking a little walk?”

“Taking a walk?” said Sara, in amaze.

“Aw–yes–or–I’d like to speak to you for ten minutes,” said Sir
Charles, with growing embarrassment; “fact is, Miss Brownlow, I don’t
want to see my mother.”

“That is very odd,” said Sara, tempted to laughter; “but still you might
walk by yourself, without seeing Lady Motherwell. There would not be
much protection in having me.”

“It was not for–protection, nor–nor that sort of thing,” stammered Sir
Charles, growing very red–“fact is, Miss Brownlow, it was something I
had to say–to you–”

“Oh!” said Sara: she saw it was coming now; and fortified by her
resolution, she made no farther effort to smother it. This, at least,
she could do, and nobody had any right to interfere with her. She might
be in her very last days of sovereignty; a few hours might see her
fallen–fallen from her high estate; but at least she could refuse
Charley Motherwell. That was a right of which neither cruel father nor
adverse fortune could deprive her. She made no farther resistance, or
attempt to get away. “If it is only to speak to me, we can talk in the
library,” she said; “it is too early to go out.” And so saying she led
the way into Mr. Brownlow’s room. Notwithstanding the strange scenes she
had seen in it, it did not chill Sara in her present mood. But it
evidently had a solemnizing effect on Sir Charles. She walked across to
the fire, which was burning cheerfully, and placed herself in one of the
big chairs which stood by, arranging her pretty skirts within its heavy
arms, which was a troublesome operation; and then she pointed graciously
to the other. “Sit down,” she said, “and tell me what it is about.”

It was not an encouraging opening for a bashful lover. It was not like
this that she had received Powys’s sudden wild declarations, his
outbursts of passionate presumption. She had been timid enough then, and
had faltered and failed to herself, somewhat as poor Sir Charles was
doing. He did not accept her kind invitation to seat himself, but stood
before her in front of the fire, and looked more awkward than ever. Poor
fellow, he had a great deal on his mind.

“Miss Brownlow,” he burst out, all at once, after he had fidgeted about
for five minutes, pulling his mustache and looking at her, “I am a bad
fellow to talk. I never know what to say. I’ve got into heaps of scrapes
from people mistaking what I mean.”

“Indeed, I am sure I am very sorry,” said Sara; “but I think I always
understand what you mean.”

“Yes,” he said, with relief, “aw–I’ve observed that. You’re one that
does, and my mother’s one; but never mind my mother just now,” he went
on precipitately. “For instance, when a fellow wants to ask a girl to
marry him, every thing has to be understood–a mistake about that would
be awful–would be dreadful–I mean, you know, it wouldn’t do.”

“It wouldn’t do at all,” said Sara, looking at him with terrible
composure, and without even the ghost of a smile.

“Yes,” said Sir Charles, revolving on his own axis, “it might be a
horrid mess. That’s why I wanted to see you, to set out with, before I
spoke to my mother. My mother’s a little old-fashioned. I’ve just been
talking to Mr. Brownlow. I can make my–aw–any girl very comfortable.
It’s not a bad old place; and as for settlements and that sort of
thing–”

“I should be very glad to give you my advice, I am sure,” said Sara,
demurely; “but I should like first to know who the lady is.”

“The lady!” cried Sir Charles–“aw–upon my word, it’s too bad. That’s
why I said every thing must be very plain. Miss Brownlow, there’s not a
girl in the world but yourself–not one!–aw–you know what I mean. I’d
go down on my knees, or any thing; only you’d laugh, I know, and I’d
lose my–my head.” All this he said with immense rapidity, moving up and
down before her. Then he suddenly came to a stand-still and looked into
her face. “I know I can’t talk,” he said; “but you know, of course, it’s
you. What would be the good of coming like this, and–and making a fool
of myself, if it wasn’t you?”

“But it can’t be me, Sir Charles,” said Sara, growing, in spite of
herself, out of sympathy, a little agitated, and forgetting the humor of
the situation. “It can’t be me–don’t say any more. If you only knew
what has been happening to us–”

“I know,” cried Sir Charles, coming a step closer; “that’s why–though I
don’t mean that’s why from the commencement, for I only heard this
morning; and that’s why I don’t want to see my mother. You need not
think it matters to me–I’ve got plenty, and we could have your father
to live with us, if you like.”

Sara stood up with the intention of making him a stately and serious
answer, but as she looked at his eager face, bent forward and gazing
down at her, a sudden change came over her feelings. She had been
laughing at him a moment before; now all at once, without any apparent
provocation, she burst into tears. Sir Charles was very much dismayed.
It did not occur to him to take advantage of her weeping, as Powys had
done. He stared, and he drew a step farther back, and fell into a state
of consternation. “I’ve said something I ought not to have said,” he
exclaimed; “I know I’m a wretched fellow to talk; but then I thought you
would understand.”

“I do understand,” cried Sara, in her impulsive way; “and papa was quite
right, and I am a horrid wretch, and you are the best man in the world!”

“Not so much as that,” said Sir Charles, with a smile of satisfaction,
which showed all his teeth under his black mustache; “but as long as you
are pleased–Don’t cry. We’ll settle it all between us, and make him
comfortable; and as for you and me–”

He made a step forward, beaming with content as he spoke, and poor Sara,
drying her eyes hastily, and waking up to the urgency of the situation,
retreated as he advanced.

“But, Sir Charles,” she cried, clasping her hands–“oh! what a wretch I
am to take you in and vex you. Stop! I did not mean that. I meant–oh! I
could kill myself–I think you are the best and kindest and truest man
in the world, but it can never be me!”

Sir Charles stopped short. That air of flattered vanity and imbecile
self-satisfaction with which most men receive the idea of being loved,
suddenly yielded in his face to intense surprise. “Why? how? what? I
don’t understand,” he stammered; and stood amazed, utterly at a loss to
know what she could mean.

“It can never be me!” cried Sara. “I am not much good. I don’t deserve
to be cared for. You will find somebody else a great deal nicer. There
are girls in the house even–there is Fanny. Don’t be angry. I don’t
think there is any thing particular in me.”

“But it is only you I fancy,” cried Sir Charles, deluded, poor man, by
this humility, and once more lighting up with complaisance and
self-satisfaction. “Fact is, we could be very comfortable together. I
don’t know about any other girls. You’re nice enough for me.”

Then Sara sank once more into the chair where a few minutes before she
had established herself with such state and dignity. “Don’t say any
more,” she cried again, clasping her hands. “Don’t! I shall like you and
be grateful to you all my life; but it can never be me!”

If Sara had been so foolish as to imagine that her unimpassioned suitor
would be easily got rid of, she now found out her error. He stared at
her, and he took a little walk around the table, and then he came back
again. The facts of the case had not penetrated his mind. Her delicate
intimations had no effect upon him. “If you like me,” he said, “that’s
enough–fact is, I don’t see how any girl could be nicer. They say all
girls talk like this at first. You and I might be very comfortable; and
as for my mother–you know if you wanted to have the house to
yourself–”

“Would you be so wicked as to go and turn out your mother?” cried Sara,
suddenly flashing into indignation, “and for a girl you know next to
nothing about? Sir Charles, I never should have expected this of you.”

Poor Sir Charles fell back utterly disconcerted. “It was all to make you
comfortable,” he said. “Of course I’d like my mother to stay. It was all
for you.”

“And I told you it could never be me,” cried Sara–“never! I am going to
Masterton with papa to take care of him. It is he who wants me most. And
then I must say good-bye to every body; I shall only be the attorney’s
daughter at Masterton; we shall be quite different; but, Sir Charles, I
shall always like you and wish you well. You have been so very good and
kind to me.”

Then Sara waved her hand to him and went toward the door. As for Sir
Charles, he was too much bewildered to speak for the first moment. He
stood and stared and let her pass him. It had never entered into his
mind that this interview was to come to so abrupt an end. But before she
left the room he had made a long step after her. “We could take care of
him at Motherwell,” he said, “just as well. Miss Brownlow, look here. It
don’t make any difference to me. If you had not a penny, you are just
the same as you always were. If you like me, that is enough for me.”

“But I don’t like you!” said Sara, in desperation, turning round upon
him with her eyes flashing fiercely, her mouth quivering pathetically,
her tears falling fast. “I mean I like somebody else better. Don’t,
please, say any more–thanks for being so good and kind to me; and
good-bye–good-bye!”

Then she seized his hand like the vehement creature she was, and clasped
it close in her soft hands, and turned and fled. That was the only word
for it. She fled, never pausing to look back. And Sir Charles, utterly
bewildered and disconcerted, stayed behind. The first thing he did was
to walk back to the fire, the natural attraction of a man in trouble.
Then he caught a glimpse of his own discomfited countenance in the
glass. “By George!” he said to himself, and turned his back upon the
rueful visage. It was the wildest oath he ever permitted himself, poor
fellow, and he showed the most overwhelming perturbation. He stood there
a long time, thinking it over. He was not a man of very fine feelings,
and yet he felt very much cast down. Though his imagination was not
brilliant, it served to recall her to him with all her charms. And his
honest heart ached. “What do I care for other girls?” he said to
himself. “What good is Fanny to me?” He stood half the morning on the
hearth-rug, sometimes turning round to look at his own dejected
countenance in the glass, and sometimes to poke the fire. He had no
heart to put himself within reach of his mother, or to look at the other
girls. When the bell rang for luncheon he rushed out into the damp
woods. Such a thing had never happened in his respectable life before:
and this was the end of Sir Charles Motherwell’s little romance.

Sara, though she did not regret Sir Charles, was more agitated than she
could have supposed possible when she left the library; there are young
ladies, no doubt, who are hardened to it; but an ordinary mortal feels a
little sympathetic trouble in most cases, when she has had to decide (so
far) upon another creature’s fate. And though he was not bright, he had
behaved very well; and then her own affairs were in such utter
confusion. She could not even look her future in the face, and say she
had any prospects. If she were to live a hundred years, how could she
ever marry her father’s clerk? and how could he so much as dream of
marrying her–he who had nothing, and a family to maintain? Poor Sara
went to her own room, and had a good cry over Sir Charles in the first
(but least) place, and herself in the second. What was to become of her?
To be the attorney’s daughter in Masterton was not the brightest of
fates–and beyond that–She cried, and she did not get any satisfaction
from the thought of having refused Sir Charles. It was very, very good
and nice of him–and oh, if it had only been Fanny on whom he had set
his fancy! Her eyes were still red when she went down stairs, and it
surprised her much to see her father leaving the morning-room as she
approached. Lady Motherwell was there with a very excited and pale face,
and one or two other ladies with a look of consternation about them. One
who was leaving the room stopped as she did so, took Sara in her arms,
though it was quite uncalled for, and gave her a hasty kiss. “My poor
dear!” said this kind woman. As for Lady Motherwell, she was in quite a
different state of mind.

“Where is Charley?” she cried. “Miss Brownlow, I wish you would tell me
where my son is. It is very strange. He is a young man who never cares
to be long away from his mother; but since we have been in this house,
he has forsaken me.”

“I saw him in the library,” said Sara. “I think he is there now. I will
go and call him, if you like.” This she said because she was angry; and
without any intention of doing what she said.

“I am much obliged to you, I am sure,” said the old lady, who, up to
this moment, had been so sweet to Sara, and called her by every
caressing name. “I will ring and send a servant, if you will permit me.
We have just been hearing some news that my dear boy ought to know.”

“If it is something papa has been telling you, I think Sir Charles knows
already,” said Sara. Lady Motherwell gave her head an angry toss, and
rang the bell violently. She took no farther notice of the girl whom she
had professed to be so fond of. “Inquire if Sir Charles Motherwell is
below,” she said. “Tell him I have ordered my carriage, and that his man
is putting up his things. We are going in half an hour.”

It was at this moment the luncheon bell rang, and Sir Charles plunged
wildly out into the woods. Perhaps the sound of the bell mollified Lady
Motherwell. She was an old lady who liked luncheon. Probably it occurred
to her that to have some refreshment before she left would do nobody any
harm. Her son could not make any proposals at table under her very eyes;
or perhaps a touch of human feeling came over her. “I meant to say we
are going directly after luncheon,” she said, turning to Sara. “You will
be very glad to get rid of us all, if Mr. Brownlow really means what he
says.”

“Oh, yes, he means it,” said Sara, with a little smile of bitterness,
“but it is always best to have luncheon first. I think you will find
your son down stairs.”

“You seem to know,” said Lady Motherwell; “perhaps that is why we have
had so little of your company this morning. The society of young men is
pleasanter than that of old ladies like me.”

“The society of _some_ young men is pleasant enough,” said Sara, unable
to suppress the retort; and she stood aside and let her guest pass,
sweeping in her long silken robes. Lady Motherwell headed the
procession; and of the ladies who followed, two or three made little
consoling speeches to Sara as they clustered after her. “It will not
turn out half so bad as your papa supposes,” said one. “I don’t see that
he had any need to tell. We have all had our losses–but we don’t go and
publish them to all the world.”

“And if it should be as bad, never mind, Sara,” said another. “We shall
all be as fond of you as ever. You must not think it hard-hearted if we
go away.”

“Oh, Sara dear, I shall be so sorry to leave you; but he would not have
told us,” said a third, “if he had not wanted us to go away.”

“I don’t know what you all mean,” said Sara. “I think you want to make
me lose my senses. Is it papa that wants you to go away?”

“He told us he had lost a great deal of money, and perhaps he might be
ruined,” said the last of all, twining her arm in Sara’s. “You must
come to us, dear, if there is any breaking-up. But perhaps it may not be
as bad as he says.”

“Perhaps not,” said Sara, holding up her head proudly. It was the only
answer she made. She swept past them all to her place at the head of the
table, with a grandeur that was quite unusual, and looked round upon her
guests like a young queen. “Papa,” she said, at the top of her sweet
young voice, addressing him at the other end of the table, “when you
have unpleasant news to tell, you should not tell it before luncheon. I
hope it will not hurt any body’s appetite.” This was all the notice she
took of the embarrassing information that had thrown such a cloud of
confusion over the guests. Mr. Brownlow, too, had recovered his calm. He
had meant only to tell Lady Motherwell, knowing at the moment that her
son was pleading his suit with Sara down stairs. He had told Sir
Charles, and the news had but made him more eager; and, with a certain
subtle instinct that came of his profession, Mr. Brownlow, that nobody
might be able to blame him, went and told the mother too. It was Lady
Motherwell’s amazed and indignant exclamations that spread the news. And
now both he and the old lady were equally on tenter-hooks of
expectation. They wanted to know what had come of it. Sara, for any
thing they knew, might be Sir Charley’s betrothed at this moment. Mr.
Brownlow, with a kind of hope, tried to read what was in his child’s
face, and Lady Motherwell looked at her with a kind of despair. Sara,
roused to her full strength, smiled and baffled them both.

“Sir Charles is in the library,” she said. “Call him, Willis; he might
be too much engaged–he might not hear the bell.”

But at this moment another bell was heard, which struck strangely upon
the excited nerves of the company. It was the bell at the door, which,
as that door was always open, and there was continually some servant or
other in the hall, was never rung. On this occasion it was pulled
wildly, as by some one in overwhelming haste. The dining-room door was
open at the moment, and the conversation at table was so hushed and
uncomfortable, that the voice outside was clearly audible. It was
something about “Miss Sara,” and “to come directly.” They all heard it,
their attention being generally aroused. Then came a rush which made
every one start and turn round. It was Mrs. Swayne, with her bonnet
thrust over her eyes, red and breathless with running. “She’s
a-dying–she’s a-dying,” said the intruder. “And I’m ready to drop. And,
Miss Sara, she’s a-calling for you.”

Sara rose up, feeling her self-command put to the utmost test. But
before she could even ask a question, Jack, who had been sitting very
silently at the middle of the table, started up and rushed to the door.
Mrs. Swayne put him back with her hand. “It’s Miss Sara,” she
said–“Miss Sara–Miss Sara–that’s who she’s a-calling of. Keep out of
her sight, and don’t aggravate her. Miss Sara, it’s you.”

And then the room seemed to reel round poor Sara, who had come to the
end of her powers. She knew no more about it until she felt the fresh
air blowing in her face, as she was half led, half carried, down the
avenue. What she was to do, or what was expected from her, she knew not.
The fate of the house and of all belonging to it had come into her
innocent hands.