SUSPICION

Neither the next day, however, nor the next again, was Mrs. Preston able
to move. The doctor had to be brought at last, and he enjoined perfect
quiet and freedom from care. If she had any thing on her mind, it was to
be exorcised and put away, he ordered, speaking to Mrs. Swayne and
Pamela, who had not a notion what she had on her mind. As for the
patient, she made her effort to rise every morning, and failed, and
turned upon her watchers such looks of despair as bewildered them. Every
morning Jack Brownlow would come to ask for her, which was the only
moment of the day in which Pamela found a little comfort; but her mother
found it out instinctively, and grew so restless, and moaned so
pitifully when her child left her, that even that sorrowful pleasure had
to be given up. The young people did not know what to think. They
persuaded themselves sometimes that it was only the effect of illness,
and that a fancy so sudden and unexplainable would, when she was better,
vanish as unreasonably as it came; but then, what was it she had to do?
When she had lain for several days in this state of feebleness, always
making vain efforts after strength, another change came over Mrs.
Preston. The wild look went out of her eyes. One morning she called
Pamela to her with more than her usual energy. “I am going to be very
quiet and still for a week,” she said; “if I am not better then, I will
tell you what you must do, Pamela. You must send for the rector and for
Nancy Christian from old Mrs. Fennell’s in Masterton. This is Tuesday,
and it is the 30th; and I will try for a week. If I am not better next
Tuesday, you must send for the rector. Promise me to do exactly what I
say.”

“Yes, mamma,” said Pamela; “but oh! what for?–if you would only tell me
what it is for! You never kept any thing secret from me.”

Mrs. Preston turned a wistful look upon her child. “I must not tell
you,” she said; “I can not tell you. If I did you would not thank me.
You will know it soon enough. Don’t ask me any questions for a week. I
mean to try and get well to do it myself; but if I don’t get well, no
more time must be lost. You must not cross me, Pamela. What do you think
I should care if it was not for you?”

“And perhaps if I knew I should not care,” cried the poor little girl,
wringing her hands. She did not know what it was; but still it became as
clear as daylight to her that it was something against Jack.

“You would tell it to him,” Mrs. Preston said, with a deep sigh. Perhaps
Pamela did not hear her, for the words were spoken almost under her
breath; but the girl heard the sigh, and divined what it meant. It was
bitter to her, poor child, and hard to think that she could not be true
to both–that her mother was afraid of trusting her–and that Jack and
Mrs. Preston were ranged on different sides, with her love and faith, as
a bone of contention, between them. Perhaps it was all the harder that
she could not cry over it, or get any relief to her soul. Things by this
time had become too serious for crying. The little soft creature grew
without knowing into a serious woman. She had to give up such vain
pleasures as that of tears over her trouble. No indulgence of the kind
was possible to her. She sat by her mother’s bedside all day long, and
with her mother’s eye upon her, had to feign composure when she little
possessed it. Mrs. Preston was unreasonable for the first time in her
life as regarded Pamela. She forgot what was needful for the child’s
health, which was a thing she had never done in her life before. She
could not bear her daughter out of her sight. If she went down stairs
for half an hour, to breathe the fresh air, her mother’s eyes would
follow her to the door with keen suspicion and fear. Pamela was glad to
think that it must be her illness, and that only, which had this effect.
Even Mrs. Swayne was more considerate. She was ready to come as often as
it was possible to watch by the sick-bed and let the poor little nurse
free; but Mrs. Preston was not willing to let her free. As it happened,
however, Mrs. Swayne was in the room when her lodger gave Pamela
instructions about calling the rector if she were not better in a week,
and it startled the curious woman. She told it to her neighbor and
tenant in the next house, and she told it to old Betty; and the thing by
degrees grew so patent to the parish that at last, and that no later
than the Friday, it came to Mr. Hardcastle’s ears. Naturally it had
changed in the telling. Whereas Mrs. Preston had directed him to be sent
for in a certain desperate case, and as a last resource, the rector
heard that Mrs. Swayne’s inmate was troubled in her mind, and was
anxious to confide some secret to him. What the secret was was doubtful,
or else it would not have been a secret; but all Dewsbury believed that
the woman was dying, and that she had done something very bad indeed,
and desired the absolution of a priest before she could die in peace.
When he heard this, it was equally natural that Mr. Hardcastle should
feel a little excited. He was disposed toward High Church views, though
he was not a man to commit himself, and approved of people who wanted
absolution from a priest. Sometimes he had even a nibble at a
confession, though unfortunately the people who confessed to him had
little on their minds, and not much to tell. And the idea of a penitent
with a real burden on her conscience was pleasant. Accordingly he got
himself up very carefully on the Saturday, and set out for Mrs.
Swayne’s. He went with the wisdom of a serpent and the meekness of a
dove, not professedly to receive a confession, but to call, as he said,
on his suffering parishioner; and he looked very important and full of
his mission when he went up stairs. Mrs. Swayne had gone astray after
the new lights of Dissent, and up to this moment the dwellers under her
roof had received no particular notice from Mr. Hardcastle, so that it
was a little difficult to account for his solicitude now.

“I heard you were ill,” said the rector; “indeed I missed you from
church. As you are a stranger, and suffering, I thought there might be
something that we could do–”

“You are very kind,” said Mrs. Preston; and then she looked askance both
at Mrs. Swayne and Pamela, keenly searching in their eyes to see if they
had sent for him. And as Pamela, who knew nothing about it, naturally
looked the guiltiest, her mother’s heart was smitten with a sharp pang
at the thought that she had been betrayed.

“Not kind at all,” said Mr. Hardcastle, with animation. “It is my duty,
and I am never tired of doing my duty. If you have any thing to say to
me now–”

Once more Mrs. Preston cast a keen glance at her daughter. And she asked
slowly, “What should I have to say?” looking not at the rector, but
suspiciously into Pamela’s face.

“My dear friend, how can I tell?” said Mr. Hardcastle. “I have seen a
great deal of the world in my time, and come through a great deal. I
know how suffering tries and tests the spirit. Don’t be shy of speaking
to me. If,” the rector added, drawing a little nearer her pillow, “you
would like me to send your attendants away–”

“Am I dying?” said Mrs. Preston, struggling up upon her bed, and looking
so pale that Pamela ran to her, thinking it was so. “Am I so ill as
that? Do they think I can not last out the time I said?”

“Mamma, mamma, you are a great deal better–you know you are a great
deal better. How can you say such dreadful things?” said Pamela,
kneeling by the bedside.

“If I am not dying, why do you forestall my own time?” said Mrs.
Preston. “Why did you trouble Mr. Hardcastle? It was soon enough on the
day I said.”

“My dear friend,” said the rector, “I hope you don’t think it is only
when you are dying that you have need of good advice and the counsel of
your clergyman. I wish it was more general to seek it always. What am I
here for but to be at the service of my parishioners night and day? And
every one who is in mental difficulty or distress has a double claim
upon me. You may speak with perfect freedom–whatever is said to me is
sacred.”

“Then you knew I wanted to speak to you?” said Mrs. Preston. “Thank you,
you are very kind. I am not ungrateful. But you knew I wanted to ask
your assistance? Somebody sent for you, perhaps?”

“I can not say I was sent for,” said Mr. Hardcastle–with a little
confusion, “but I heard–you know, in a country place the faintest wish
you can express takes wings to itself, and becomes known everywhere. I
understood–I heard–from various quarters–that if I came here–I might
be of use to you.”

All the answer Mrs. Preston made to this was to turn round to the head
of the bed where Pamela stood, half hidden, in the corner. “That you
might have something to tell him a little sooner!” she said. Her voice,
though it was very low, so low as to be inaudible to the visitor, was
bitter and sharp with pain, and she cast a glance full of reproach and
anguish at her only child. She thought she had been betrayed. She
thought that, for the lover’s sake, who was dearer than father or
mother, her own nursling had forfeited her trust. It was a bitter
thought, and she was ill, and weak, and excited, and her mind distorted,
so that she could not see things in their proper light. The bitterness
was such that Pamela, utterly innocent as she was, sank before it. She
did not know what she had done. She did not understand what her mother’s
look meant; but she shrank back among the curtains as if she had been
really guilty, and it brought to a climax her sense of utter confusion
and dismay.

“I will tell you what the case is,” Mrs. Preston added quickly, the
color coming back to her cheek. “I am not in very good health, as you
see, but I have something very important to do before I die. It concerns
the comfort of my child. So far as I am involved, it would not
matter–it would not matter–for I shall not live long,” she added with
a certain plaintive tremor of self-pity in her voice. “It is all for
Pamela, sir–though Pamela–but lately I grew frightened, and thought
myself worse; and I told them–I told _her_–that if I was no better
next Tuesday, they were to send for you. I would not trouble you if I
were well enough myself. It was in case I should not be able, and I
thought of asking your help; that is how it was. I suppose it was their
curiosity. Curiosity is not a sin: but–they say I am not worse–they
say I am even a little better. So I will not trouble you, Mr.
Hardcastle. By that time I shall be able for what I have to do.”

“You must not be too sure of that,” said the rector; and he meant it
kindly, though the words had but a doubtful sound; “and you must not
think I am prying or intrusive. I was not sent for: but I
understood–that–I might be of use. It is not giving me trouble. If
there is any thing I can do for you if you have no friends–”

“We shall soon have plenty of friends,” said Mrs. Preston quickly, with
a certain mocking tone in her voice; “plenty of friends. We have not had
many hitherto; but all that will soon change. Yes, I shall be able for
what I have to do. I feel quite sure of it. You have done me a great
deal of good. After it is done,” she said, with that desolate look which
Pamela felt to the bottom of her heart, but could not understand, “there
will be time enough to be ill, and to die too, if God pleases. I will
not mind it much when I leave her with many friends.”

“Mamma!” cried Pamela, with a mingled appeal and reproach; but though
she bent over her she could not catch her mother’s eyes.

“It is true,” said Mrs. Preston. “I was like to break my heart when I
thought how old I was, and that I might die and leave you without any
body to care for you; but now you will have many friends–plenty of
friends. And it don’t so much matter.” She ended with such a sigh as
moved even the heart of the rector, and touched Mrs. Swayne, who was
not of a very sympathetic disposition, to tears.

“You must not talk of leaving your child without a protector,” said Mr.
Hardcastle; “if you knew what it was to have a motherless girl to bring
up, you would not speak of it lightly. That is my case. My poor little
Fanny was left motherless when she was only ten. There is no misfortune
like it to a girl. Nobody knows how to manage a young creature but a
mother. I feel it every day of my life,” said the rector, with a sigh.
It was very, very different from Mrs. Preston’s sigh. There was neither
depth in it nor despair like that which breathed in hers. Still, its
superficial sadness was pathetic to the women who listened. They
believed in him in consequence, more perhaps than he believed in
himself, and even Mrs. Swayne was affected against her will.

“Miss Fanny has got them as is father and mother both in one,” she said;
“but bless you, sir, she ain’t always like this. It’s sickness as does
it. One as is more fond of her child, nor prouder of her child, nor more
content to live and see her ’appy, don’t exist, when she’s in her
ordinary. And now, as the rector has come hisself, and ’as comforts at
hand, you’ll pluck up a spirit, that’s what you’ll do. Miss Pamela,
who’s as good as gold, don’t think of nothing but a-nursing and
a-looking after her poor dear mamma; and if so be as you’d make good use
o’ your time, and take the rector’s advice–”

Mrs. Preston closed her lips tight as if she was afraid that some words
would come through against her will, and faced them all with an
obstinate resolution, shaking her head as her only answer. She faced
them half seated on her bed, rising from among her pillows as if they
were all arrayed against her, and she alone to keep her own part. Her
secret was hers, and she would confide it to nobody; and already, in the
shock of this intrusion, it seemed to her as if the languid life had
been stirred in her veins, and her forces were mustering to her heart to
meet the emergency. When she had made this demonstration, she came down
from those heights of determination and responded to the rector’s claim
for sympathy as he knew well every woman would respond. “A girl is the
better of a mother,” she said, “even when she don’t think it. Many a one
is ungrateful, but we are not to look for gratitude. Yes, I know a
mother is still something in this world. Pamela, you’ll remember some
day what Mr. Hardcastle said; and if Miss Fanny should ever want a
friend–But I am getting a little tired. Good-by, Mr. Hardcastle;
perhaps you will come and see me again. And after a while, when I have
done what I have to do–”

“Good-by,” said the rector, after waiting vainly for the close of the
sentence; and he rose up and took his leave, feeling that he had been
dismissed, and had no right to stay longer. “If you should still want
assistance–though I hope you will be better, as you expect–”

Mrs. Preston waved her hand in reply, and he went down stairs much
confused, not knowing what to make of it. The talk he had with Mrs.
Swayne in the passage threw but little light on the matter. Mrs. Swayne
explained that they were poor; that she thought there was “something
between” Miss Pamela and Mr. John; that she herself had essayed
strenuously to keep the young people apart, knowing that nothing but
harm would come of it; but that it was only lately, very lately, that
Mrs. Preston had seemed to be of her opinion. A week ago she had
received a visit, and had shut the door upon the young man, and fallen
ill immediately after. “And all this talk o’ something to do has begun
since that,” she added; “she’s never had nothing to do as long as she’s
been here. There’s a bit of a pension as is paid regular, and there
never was no friends as I know of as could die and leave her money. It’s
some next-of-kin business, that’s my idea, Mr. Hardcastle–some o’ that
rubbish as is in the papers–folks of the name of Smith or such like as
is advertised for, and something to come to their advantage. But she’s
awful close and locked up, as you may say, in her own bosom, and never
said a rational word to me.”

“You don’t think it’s _this_?” said Mr. Hardcastle, putting his hand
significantly to his forehead.

“Oh, bless you, it ain’t that,” said Mrs. Swayne. “She’s as clear as
clear–a deal clearer, for the matter of that, than she was afore; the
first time as she had the sense to turn Mr. John from the door was the
night as she was took. It ain’t that. She’s heard o’ something, you take
my word, and it’s put fancies in her head; and as for that poor Pamela,
she’s as jealous of every look that poor child gives; and I don’t call
it no wonder myself, if you let a girl see a deal of a gentleman, that
she should think more of him than’s good for her. It should have been
stopped when it began; but nobody will ever listen to me.”

Mr. Hardcastle left the house with altogether a new idea in his mind. He
had lectured his neighbor about young Powys and Sara, but he had not
known any thing of this still more serious scandal about Jack. He
murmured to himself over it as he went away with a great internal
_chuchotement_. Poor Mr. Brownlow! both his son and his daughter thus
showing low tastes. And he could not refrain from saying a few words
about it to Jack, whom he met returning with his shooting-party–words
which moved the young man to profound indignation. He was very angry,
and yet it was not in nature that he should remain unmoved by the
suggestion that Pamela’s mother was either mad or had something on her
mind. He had himself seen enough to give it probability. And to call Mr.
Hardcastle a meddling parson, or even by some of those stronger and
still less graceful epithets which sometimes follow the course of a
clergyman’s beneficent career, did but little good. Jack was furious
that any body should have dared to say such words, but the words
themselves rankled in his heart. As soon as he could steal out after
dinner he did so, and went to the gate and saw the glimmering light in
Mrs. Preston’s window, and received Mrs. Swayne’s ungracious report. But
Pamela was not to be seen. She was never to be seen.

“They will kill her with this watching,” he said to himself, as he stood
and watched the light, and ground his teeth with indignation. But he
could do nothing, although she was his own and pledged to him. He was
very near cursing all mothers and fathers, as well as interfering
priests and ungracious women, as he lingered up the avenue going home,
and sucked with indignation and disgust at his extinguished cigar.

Poor little Pamela was no better off up stairs. She was doubted,
suspected, feared–she who had been nothing but loved all her life. The
child did not understand it, but she felt the bitterness of the cloud
into which she had entered. It made her pale, and weighed upon her with
a mysterious depth of distress which would not have been half so heavy
had she been guilty. If she had been guilty she would have known exactly
the magnitude of the offense, and how much she was suspected of; but
being utterly innocent she did not know. Her sweet eyes turned
deprecating, beseeching, to her mother’s but they won no answer. The
thought that her child had conspired against her, that she had planned
to entrap her secret from her and betray it to her lover, that she was a
traitor to the first and tenderest of affections, and that the new love
had engrossed and swallowed up every thing–was the bitter thought that
filled Mrs. Preston’s mind, and hid from her the wistful innocence in
Pamela’s eyes. When the girl arranged her pillows or gave her medicine,
her mother thanked her with formality, and answered her sharply when she
spoke. “Dear mamma, are you not tired?” the poor child would say; and
Mrs. Preston answered, “No, you need not think it, Pamela; people
sometimes balk their own purpose. I shall be able after all. Your rector
has done me good.”

“He is not my rector, mamma,” said Pamela. “I never spoke to him before.
Oh! if you would only tell me why you are angry with me.”

“I am not angry. I suppose it is human nature,” said Mrs. Preston, and
this was all the answer she would give. So that Pamela, poor child, had
nothing for it but to retire behind the curtains and cry. This time the
tears would well forth. She had been used to so much love, and it was
hard to do without it; and when her mother repulsed her, in her heart
she cried out for Jack. She cried out for him in her heart, but he could
not hear her, though at that very moment he was no farther off than in
the avenue, where he was lingering along very indignant and
heavy-hearted, with his cigar out, though he did not know. It might not
be a very deadly trouble to either of the young sufferers, but it was
sharp enough in its way.