THE FATHER’S DAY AT THE OFFICE

While Sara and Jack were thus enjoying themselves, Mr. Brownlow went
quietly in to his business–very quietly, in the dogcart, with his man
driving, who was very steady, and looked as comfortable as his master.
Mr. Brownlow was rather pleased not to have his son’s company that
morning; he had something to do which he could scarcely have done had
Jack been there–business which was quite justifiable, and indeed right,
but which it would have been a disagreeable matter to have explained to
Jack. His mind was much more intent upon his own affairs than were those
of either of his children on theirs. They had so much time in life to do
all they meant to do, that they could afford to set out leisurely, and
go forth upon the world with a sweet vacancy in their minds, ready for
any thing that might turn up; but with Mr. Brownlow it was not so; his
objects had grown to be very clear before him. He was not so old as to
feel the pains or weariness or languor of age. He was almost as able to
enjoy, and perhaps better able to do, in the way of his profession at
least, than was young Jack. The difference was, that Mr. Brownlow lived
only in the present; the future had gradually been cut off, as it were,
before him. There was one certainty in his path somewhere a little in
advance, but nothing else that could be counted upon, so that whatever
he had to do, and anything he might have to enjoy, presented themselves
with double clearness in the limited perspective. It was the only time
in his life that he had felt the full meaning of the word “Now.” The
present was his possession, his day in which he lived and worked, with
plenty of space behind to go back upon, but nothing reliable before.
This gave not only a vividness and distinct character, but also a
promptitude, to his actions, scarcely possible to a younger man. To-day
was his, but not to-morrow; whereas to Jack and his contemporaries
to-morrow was always the real day, never the moment in which they lived.

When Mr. Brownlow reached his office, the first thing he did was to send
for a man who was a character in Masterton. He was called by various
names, and it was not very certain which belonged to him, or indeed if
any belonged to him. He was called Inspector Pollaky by many people who
were in the habit of reading the papers; but of course he was not that
distinguished man. He was called detective and thief-taker, and many
other injurious epithets, and he was a man whom John Brownlow had had
occasion to consult before now on matters of business. He was sent for
that morning, and he had a long conversation with Mr. Brownlow in his
private room. He was that sort of man that understands what people mean
even when they do not speak very plainly, and naturally he took up at
once the lawyer’s object and pledged himself to pursue it. “You shall
have some information on the subject probably this afternoon, sir,” he
said as he went away. After this visit Mr. Brownlow went about his own
business with great steadiness and precision, and cast his eyes over his
son’s work, and was very particular with the clerks–more than
ordinarily particular. It was his way, for he was an admirable business
man at all times; but still he was unusually energetic that day. And
they were all a little excited about Pollaky, as they called him, what
commission he might have received, and which case he might be wanted
about. At the time when he usually had his glass of sherry, Mr. Brownlow
went out; he did not want his midday biscuit. He was a little out of
sorts, and he thought a walk would do him good; but instead of going
down to Barnes’s Pool or across the river to the meadows, which had been
lately flooded, and now were one sheet of ice, places which all the
clerks supposed to be the most attractive spots for twenty miles round,
he took the way of the town and went up into Masterton. He was going to
pay a visit, and it was a most unusual one. He was going to see his
wife’s mother, old Mrs. Fennell, for whom he had no love. It was a thing
he did not do for years together, but having been somehow in his own
mind thoroughly worked up to it, he took the occasion of Jack’s absence
and went that day.

Mrs. Fennell was sitting in her drawing-room with only her second-best
cap on, and with less than her second-best temper. If she had known he
was coming she would have received him with a very different state, and
she was mortified by her unpreparedness. Also her dinner was ready. As
for Mr. Brownlow, he was not thinking of dinners. He had something on
his mind, and it was his object to conceal that he had any thing on his
mind–a matter less difficult to a man of his profession than to
ordinary mortals. But what he said was that he was anxious chiefly to
know if his mother-in-law was comfortable, and if she had every thing
according to her desires.

Mrs. Fennell smiled at this inquiry. She smiled, but she rushed into a
thousand grievances. Her lodgings were not to her mind, nor her
position. Sara, the little puss, had carriages when she pleased, but her
grandmamma never had any conveyance at her disposal to take the air in.
And the people of the house were very inattentive, and Nancy–but here
the old woman, who was clever, put a sudden stop to herself and drew up
and said no more. She knew that to complain of Nancy would be of no
particular advantage to her, for Mr. Brownlow was not fond of old Mrs.
Thomson’s maid, and was as likely as not to propose that she should be
pensioned and sent away.

“I have told you before,” said Mr. Brownlow, “that the brougham should
be sent down for you when you want to go out if you will only let me
know in time. What Sara has is nothing–or you can have a fly; but it is
not fit weather for you to go out at your age.”

“You are not so very young yourself, John Brownlow,” said the old lady,
with a little offense.

“No indeed–far from it–and that is what makes me think,” he said
abruptly; and then made a pause which she did not understand, referring
evidently to something in his own mind. “Did you ever know any body of
the name of Powys in the Isle of Man?” he resumed, with a certain
nervous haste, and an effort which brought heat and color to his face.

“Powys!” said Mrs. Fennell. “I’ve heard the name; but I think it was
Liverpool-ways and not in the Isle of Man. It’s a Welsh name. No; I
never knew any Powyses. Do you?”

“It was only some one I met,” said Mr. Brownlow, “who had relations in
the Isle of Man. Do you know of any body who married there and left?
Knowing that you came from that quarter, somebody was asking me.”

“I don’t know of nobody but one,” said the old woman–“one that would
make a deal of difference if she were to come back now.”

“You mean the woman Phœbe Thomson?” said Mr. Brownlow, sternly. “It
is a very strange thing to me that her relatives should know nothing
about that woman–not even whom she married or what was her name.”

“She married a soldier,” said Mrs. Fennell, “as I always heard. She
wasn’t my relation–it was poor Fennell that was her cousin. As for us,
we come of very different folks; and I don’t doubt as her name might
have been found out,” said the old woman, nodding her spiteful old head.
Mr. Brownlow kept his temper, but it was by a kind of miracle. This was
the sort of thing which he was always subject to on his rare visits to
his mother-in-law. “It’s for some folks’ good that her name couldn’t be
found out,” added the old woman, with another significant nod.

“It would have been for some folks’ good if they had never heard of
her,” said Mr. Brownlow. “I wish a hundred times in a year that I had
never administered or taken any notice of the old hag’s bequest. Then it
would have gone to the crown, I suppose, and all this trouble would have
been spared.”

“Other things would have had to be spared as well,” said Mrs. Fennell,
in her taunting voice.

“I should have known what was my own and what was not, and my children
would have been in no false position,” said Mr. Brownlow, with energy:
“but now–” Here he stopped short, and his looks alarmed his companion,
unsympathetic as she was. She loved to have this means of taunting and
keeping down his pride, as she said; but her grandchildren’s advantage
was to a certain extent her own, and the thought of injury to them was
alarming, and turned her thoughts into another channel. She took fright
at the idea of Phœbe Thomson when she saw Mr. Brownlow’s face. It was
the first time it had ever occurred to her as possible that he, a
gentleman, a lawyer, and a clever man, might possibly have after all to
give up to Phœbe Thomson should that poor and despised woman ever
turn up.

“But she couldn’t take the law of you?” Mrs. Fennell said, with a gasp.
“She wouldn’t know any thing about it. I may talk disagreeable by times,
and I own that we never were fond of each other, you and I, John
Brownlow; but I’m not the woman that would ever let on to her, to harm
my poor Bessie’s children–not I–not if she was to come back this very
day.”

It is useless to deny that Mr. Brownlow’s face at that moment looked as
if he would have liked to strangle the old woman; but he only made an
indignant movement, and looked at her with rage and indignation, which
did her no harm. And, poor man, in his excitement perhaps it was not
quite true what he himself said–

“If she should come back this very day, it would be your duty to send
her to me instantly, that I might give up her mother’s trust into her
hands,” he said. “You may be sure I will never permit poor Bessie’s
children to enjoy what belongs to another.” And then he made a pause and
his voice changed. “After all, I suppose you know just as little of her
as I do. Did you ever see her?” he said.

“Well, no; I can’t say I ever did,” said Mrs. Fennell, cowed for the
moment.

“Nor Nancy?” said Mr. Brownlow; “you two would be safe guides certainly.
And you know of nobody else who left the Isle of Man and married–no
relation of Fennell’s or of yours?”

“Nobody I know of,” said the old woman after a pause. “There might be
dozens; but us and the Thomsons and all belonging to us, we’ve been out
of the Isle of Man for nigh upon fifty years.”

After that Mr. Brownlow went away. He had got no information, no
satisfaction, and yet he had made no discovery, which was a kind of
negative comfort in its way; but it was clear that his mother-in-law,
though she made so much use of Phœbe Thomson’s name, was utterly
unable to give him any assistance either in discovering the real
Phœbe Thomson or in exposing any false pretender. He went across the
market place over the crisp snow in the sunshine with all his faculties,
as it were, crisped and sharpened like the air he breathed. This was all
the effect as yet which the frosts of age had upon him. He had all his
powers unimpaired, and more entirely serviceable and under command than
ever they were. He could trust himself not to betray himself, to keep
counsel, and act with deliberation, and do nothing hastily. Thus, though
his enemies were as yet unknown and unrecognized, and consequently all
the more dangerous, he had confidence in his own army of defense, which
was a great matter. He returned to his office, and to his business, and
was as clearheaded and self-possessed, and capable of paying attention
to the affairs of his clients, as if he had nothing particular in his
own to occupy him. And the only help he got from circumstances was that
which was given him by the frost, which had happily interfered this day
of all others to detain Jack. Jack was not his father’s favorite child;
he was not, as Sara was, the apple of John Brownlow’s eye; and yet the
lawyer appreciated, and did justice to, as well as loved, his son, in a
just and natural way. He felt that Jack’s quick eye would have found out
that there was something more than usual going on. He knew that his
visit to Mrs. Fennell and his unexplained conference with the man of
mystery would not have been passed over by Jack without notice; and at
the young man’s hasty, impetuous time of life, prudence was not to be
expected or even desired. If Jack thought it possible that Phœbe
Thomson was to be found within a hundred miles, no doubt he would make
off without a moment’s thought and hunt her up, and put his own fortune,
and, what was more, Sara’s, eagerly into her hands. This was what Jack
would do, and Mr. Brownlow was glad in his heart that Jack would be sure
to do it; but yet it might be a very different course which he himself,
after much thought and consideration, might think it best to take.

He was long in his office that night, and worked very hard–indeed he
would have been almost alone before he left but that one of the clerks
had some extra work to do, and another had stayed to keep him company;
so that two of them were still there when Inspector Pollaky, as they
called him, came back. It was quite late, too late for the ice, or the
young men would not have waited–half an hour later at least than the
usual time at which Mr. Brownlow left the office. And he closed his door
carefully behind his mysterious visitor, and made sure that it was
securely shut before he began to talk to him, which naturally was a
thing that excited much wondering between the young men.

“Young Jack been a naughty boy?” said one to the other; then they
listened, but heard nothing. “More likely some fellow going in for Miss
Brownlow, and he wants to pick holes in him,” said the second. But when
half an hour passed and every thing continued very undisturbed, they
betook themselves to their usual talk. “I suppose it’s about the Worsley
case,” they said, and straightway Inspector Pollaky lost interest in
their eyes. So long as it was only a client’s business it did not
matter. Not for such common place concerns would the young heroes of
John Brownlow’s office interrupt the even tenor of their way.

“I suppose you have brought me some news,” said Mr. Brownlow; “come near
the fire. Take a chair, it is bitterly cold. I scarcely expected you so
soon as to-day.”

“Bless you, sir, it’s as easy as easy,” said the mysterious
man–“disgusting easy. If there’s any body that I despise in this world,
it’s folks that have nothing to conceal. They’re all on the surface,
them folks are. You can take and read them clear off, through and
through.”

“Well?” said Mr. Brownlow. He turned his face a little away from the
light that he might not be spied too closely, though there was not in
reality any self-betrayal in his face. His lips were a little white and
more compressed than usual, that was all.

“Well, sir, for the first thing, it’s all quite true,” said the man.
“There’s seven of a family–the mother comely-like still, but older nor
might be expected. Poor, awful poor, but making the best of it–keeping
their hearts up as far as I could see. The young fellow helping too, and
striving his best. I shouldn’t say as they had much of a dinner to-day;
but cheerful as cheerful, and as far as I could see–”

“Was this all you discovered?” said Mr. Brownlow, severely.

“I am coming to the rest, sir,” said the detective, “and you’ll say as
I’ve forgotten nothing. The father, which is dead, was once in the Life
Guards. He was one of them sprigs as is to be met with there–run away
out of a good family. He came from London first as far as she knows; and
then they were ordered to Windsor, and then they went to Canada; but
I’ve got the thread, Mr. Brownlow–I’ve got the thread. This poor fellow
of a soldier got letters regular for a long time from Wales, she
says–post-mark was St. Asaphs. Often and often she said as she’d go
with him, and see who it was as wrote to him so often. I’ve been
thereabouts myself in the way of my business, and I know there’s Powyses
as thick as blackberries–that’s point number one. Second point was, he
always called himself a Welshman and kept St. David’s Day. If he’d lived
longer he’d have been sent up for promotion, and gone out of the ranks.”

“And then?–but go on in your own way, I want to hear it all,” said Mr.
Brownlow. He was getting more and more excited; and yet somehow it was a
kind of pleasure to him to feel that his informant was wasting time upon
utterly insignificant details. Surely if the detective suspected
nothing, it must be that there was nothing to suspect.

“Yes, sir,” he said, “that’s about where it is; he was one of the
Powyses; naturally the children is Powyses too. But he died afore he
went up for promotion; and now they’re come a-seeking of their friends.
It ain’t no credit to me to be employed on such an easy case. The only
thing that would put a little credit in it would be, if you’d give me
just a bit of a hint what was wanted. If their friends want ’em I’ll
engage to put ’em on the scent. If their friends don’t want ’em–as
wouldn’t be no wonder; for folks may have a kindness for a brother or a
son as is wild, and yet they mightn’t be best pleased to hear of a widow
a-coming with seven children–if they ain’t wanted a word will do it,
and no questions asked.”

John Brownlow gave the man a sharp glance, and then he fell a-musing, as
if he was considering whether to give him this hint or not. In reality,
he was contemplating, with a mixture of impatience and vexation and
content, the total misconception of his object which his emissary had
taken up. He was exasperated by his stupidity, and yet he felt a kind of
gratitude to him, and relief, as if a danger had been escaped.

“And what of the woman herself?” he said, in a tone which, in spite of
him trembled a little.

“Oh, the woman,” said the detective, carelessly; “some bit of a girl as
he married, and as was pretty, I don’t doubt, in her day. There’s
nothing particular about her. She’s very fond of her children, and very
free in her talk, like most women when you take ’em the right way. Bless
you, sir, when I started her talking of her husband, it was all that I
could do to get her to leave off. She don’t think she’s got any thing to
hide. He was a gentleman, that’s clear. He wouldn’t have been near so
frank about himself, I’ll be bound. She ain’t a lady exactly, but
there’s something about her–and awful open in her way, with them front
teeth–”

“Has _she_ got front teeth?” said Mr. Brownlow, with some eagerness. He
pitched upon it as the first personal attribute he had yet heard of, and
then he added, with a little confusion, “like the boy–”

“Yes sir–exactly like the young fellow,” said his companion; “but there
ain’t nothing about her to interest _us_. She told me as she once had
friends as lived in Masterton; but she’s the sort of woman as don’t mind
much about friends as long as her children is well off; and I judge she
was of well-to-do folks, that was awful put out about her marriage. A
man like that, sir, might be far above her, and have friends that was
far above her, and yet it’s far from the kind of marriage as would
satisfy well-to-do folks.”

“I thought she came from the Isle of Man,” said Mr. Brownlow, in what he
meant for an indifferent way.

“As a child, sir–as a child,” said the detective, with easy
carelessness. “Her friends left there when she was but a child, and then
they went where there was a garrison, where she met with her good
gentleman. She was never in Masterton herself. It was after she was
married and gone, and, I rather think, cast off by all belonging to her,
that they came to live here.”

Mr. Brownlow sat leaning over the fire, and a heavy moisture began to
rise on his forehead. The speaker was so careless, and yet these calm
details seemed to him so terrible. Could it be that he was making
terrors for himself–that the man experienced in mystery was right in
being so certain that there was no mystery here–or must he accept the
awful circumstantial evidence of these simple particulars? Could there
be more than one family which had left the Isle of Man so long ago, and
gone to live where there was a garrison, and abandoned its silly
daughter when she married her soldier? Mr. Brownlow was stupefied, and
did not know what to think. He sat and listened while this man whom he
had called to his assistance went over again all the facts that seemed
to point out that the connection of the family with the Powyses of North
Wales was the one thing either to be brought forward or got rid of. This
was how he had understood his instructions, and he had carried them out
so fully that his employer, fully occupied with the incidental
information which seemed to prove all he feared, heard his voice run on
without remarking it, and would have told him to stop the babble to
which he was giving vent, had his thoughts been sufficiently at leisure
to care for what he was saying. When he fully perceived this mistake,
Mr. Brownlow looked upon it as “providential,” as people say. But, in
the mean time, he was not conscious of any thing, except of a
possibility still more clear and possible, and of a ridiculous
misconception which still it was not his interest to clear up. He let
his detective talk, and then he let him go, but half satisfied, and
inclined to think that no confidence was reposed in him. And though it
was so late, and the brougham was at the door, and the servants very
tired of their unusual detention, Mr. Brownlow went back again to the
fire, and bent over it, and stretched out his hands to the blaze, and
again tried to think. He went over the same ideas a hundred times, and
yet they did not seem to grow any clearer to him. He tried to ask
himself what was his duty, but duty slunk away, as it were to the very
recesses of his soul, and gave no impulse to his mind, nor so much as
showed itself in the darkness. If this should turn out to be true, no
doubt there were certain things which he ought to do; and yet, if all
this could but be banished for awhile, and the year got over which would
bring safety–Mr. Brownlow had never in all his life before done what he
knew to be a dishonorable action. He was not openly contemplating such a
thing now; only somehow his possessions seemed so much more his than any
body else’s; it seemed as if he had so much better right to the good
things he had been enjoying for four-and-twenty years than any woman
could have who had never possessed them–who knew nothing about them.
And then he did not know that it was this woman. He said to himself that
he had really no reason to think so. The young man had said nothing
about old Mrs. Thomson. The detective had never even suspected any
mystery in that quarter, though he was a man of mystery, and it was his
business to suspect every thing. This was what he was thinking when he
went back to the fire in his office, and stretched his hands over the
blaze. Emotion of any kind somehow chills the physical frame; but when
one of the detained clerks came to inform him of the patient brougham
which waited outside, and which Sara, by reason of the cold, had sent
for him, it was the opinion of the young man that Mr. Brownlow was
beginning to age rapidly, and that he looked quite old that evening. But
he did not look old; he looked, if any one had been there with eyes to
see it, like a man for the first time in his life driven to bay. Some
men come to that moment in their lives sooner, some later, some never at
all. John Brownlow had been more than five-and-fifty years in the world,
and yet he had never been driven to bay before. And he was so now; and
except to stand out and resist, and keep his face to his enemies, he did
not, in the suddenness of the occurrence, see as yet what he was to do.

In the mean time, however, he had to stoop to ordinary necessities and
get into his carriage and be driven home, through the white gleaming
country which shone under the moonlight, carrying with him a curious
perception of how different it would have been had the house in High
Street been home–had he had nothing more to do than to go up to the old
drawing-room, his mother’s drawing-room, and find Sara there; and eat
his dinner where his father had eaten his, instead of this long drive to
the great country-house, which was so much more costly and magnificent
than any thing his forefathers knew; but then his father, what would he
have thought of this complication? What would he have advised, had it
been any client of his; nay, what, if it was a client, would Mr.
Brownlow himself advise? These thoughts kept turning over in his mind
half against his will as he lay back in the corner of the carriage and
saw the ghostly trees glimmer past in their coating of snow. He was very
late, and Sara was anxious about him; nay, even Jack was anxious, and
had come down to the park gates to look out for the carriage, and also
to ask how the little invalid was at Mrs. Swayne’s. Jack, having this
curiosity in his mind, did not pay much attention to his father’s looks;
but Sara, with a girl’s quick perception, saw there was something
unusual in his face; and with her usual rapidity she leaped to the
conclusion that the bank must have broken or the railway gone wrong of
which she had dreamed in the morning. Thus they all met at the table
with a great deal on their minds; and this day, which I have recorded
with painstaking minuteness, in order that there may be no future doubt
as to its importance in the history, came to an end with outward
placidity but much internal perturbation–at least came to an end as
much as any day can be said to come to an end which rises upon an
unsuspecting family big with undeveloped fate.

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