THE MORNING LIGHT

Of all painful things in this world there are few more painful than the
feeling of rising up in the morning to a difficulty unsolved, a mystery
unexplained. So long as the darkness is over with the night something
can always be done. Calamity can be faced, misfortune met; but to get up
in the morning light, and encounter afresh the darkness, and find no
clue any more than you had at night, is hard work. This was what Jack
felt when he had to face the sunshine, and remembered all that had
happened, and the merry party that awaited him down stairs, and that he
must amuse his visitors as if this day had been like any other. If he
but knew what had really happened! But the utmost he could do was to
guess at it, and that in the vaguest way. The young man went down stairs
with a load on his mind, not so much of care as of uncertainty. Loss of
fortune was a thing that could be met; but if there was loss of honor
involved–if his father’s brain was giving way with the
pressure–if–Jack would not allow his thoughts to go any farther. He
drew himself up with a sudden pull, and stopped short, and went down
stairs. At the breakfast-table every thing looked horribly unchanged.
The guests, the servants, the routine of the cheerful meal, were just as
usual. Mr. Brownlow, too, was at the table, holding his usual place.
There was an ashy look about his face, which produced inquiries
concerning his health from every new arrival; but his answers were so
brief and unencouraging that these questions soon died off into silence.
And he ate nothing, and his hand shook as he put his cup of coffee to
his pallid lips. All these were symptoms that might be accounted for in
the simplest way by a little bodily derangement. But Jack, for his part,
was afraid to meet his father’s eye. “Where is Sara?” he asked, as he
took his seat. And then he was met–for he was late, and most of the
party were down before him–by a flutter of regrets and wonder. Poor
Sara had a headache–so bad a headache that she would not even have any
one go into her room. “Angelique was keeping the door like a little
tiger,” one of the young ladies said, “and would let nobody in.” “And
oh, tell me who it was that came so late last night,” cried another.
“_You_ must know. We are all at such a pitch of curiosity. It must be a
foreign prince, or the prime minister, or some great beauty, we can’t
make up our minds which; and, of course, _it_ is breakfasting in its own
room this morning. Nobody will tell us who it was. Do tell us!–we are
all dying to know.”

“As you will all be dreadfully disappointed,” said Jack. “It was neither
a prince nor a beauty. As for prime minister I don’t know. Such things
have been heard of as that a prime minister should be an old woman–”

“An old woman!” said his innocent interlocutor. “Then it must be Lady
Motherwell. Oh, I don’t wonder poor Sara has a headache. But you know
you are only joking. Her dear Charley would never let her come storming
to any body’s door like that.”

“It was not Lady Motherwell,” said Jack. Heaven knows he was in no mood
for jesting; but when it is a matter which is past talking of, what can
a man do?

“Oh, then, I know who it must have been!” cried the spokeswoman of the
party. She was, however, suddenly interrupted. Mr. Brownlow, who had
scarcely said a word as yet to any one, interposed. There was something
in his tone which somehow put them all to silence.

“I am sorry to put a stop to your speculations,” he said. “It was only
one of my clients on urgent business–that was all; business,” he added,
with a curious kind of apology, “which has kept me up half the night.”

“Oh, Mr. Brownlow, I am so sorry. You are tired, and we have been
teasing you,” said the lively questioner, with quick compunction.

“No, not teasing me,” he said, gravely. And then a dead silence ensued.
It was not any thing in his words. His words were simple enough; and yet
every one of his guests instantly began to think that his or her stay
had been long enough, and that it was time to go away.

As Mr. Brownlow spoke he met Jack’s eye, and returned his look steadily.
So far he was himself again. He was impenetrable, antagonistic, almost
defiant. But there was no hovering horror in his look. He was terribly
grave, and ashy pale, and bore traces that what had happened was no
light master. His look gave his son a sensation of relief, and perhaps
encouraged him in levity of expression, though, Heaven knows, there was
little levity in his mind.

“I told you,” he said, “it might have been the prime minister, but it
certainly was an old woman; and there I stop. I can’t give any farther
information; I am not one of the Privy Council.” Then he laughed, but it
was an uncomfortable laugh. It deepened the silence all around, and
looked like a family quarrel, and made every body feel ill at ease.

“I don’t think any one here can be much interested in details,” said Mr.
Brownlow, coldly; and then he rose to leave the table. It was his habit
to leave the table early, and on ordinary occasions his departure made
little commotion; but to-day it was different. They all clustered up to
their feet as he went out of the room. Nobody knew what should be done
that day. The men looked awkwardly at each other; the women tried hard
to be the same as before, and failed, having Jack before them, who was
far from looking the same. “I suppose, Jack, you will not go out
to-day,” one of his companions said, though they had not an idea why.

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t,” said Jack, and then he made a pause; and
every body looked at him. “After all,” he continued, “you all know your
way about; as Sara has a headache I had better stay;” and he hurried
their departure that he might get rid of them. His father had not gone
out; the dog-cart had come to the door, but it had been sent off again.
He was in the library, Willis said in a whisper; and though he had been
so many years with Mr. Brownlow and knew all his ways, Willis was
obviously startled too. For one moment Jack thought of cross-questioning
the butler to see what light he could throw upon the matter–if he had
heard any thing on the previous night, or suspected any thing–but on
second thoughts he dismissed the idea. Whatever it was, it was from his
father himself that he ought to have the explanation. But though Mr.
Brownlow was in the library Jack did not go to him there. He loitered
about till his friends were gone, and till the ladies of the party,
finding him very impracticable and with no amusement in him, had gone
off upon their various ways. He did his best to be civil even playful,
poor fellow, being for the moment every body’s representative, both
master and mistress of the house. But though there was no absolute
deficiency in any thing he said or did, they were all too sharp-witted
to be taken in. “He has something on his mind,” one matron of the party
said to the other. “They have something on all their minds, my dear,”
said the other, solemnly; and they talked very significantly and
mysteriously of the Brownlows as they filled Sara’s morning-room with
their work and various devices, for it was a foggy, wretched day, and no
one cared to venture out. Jack meanwhile drew a long breath of relief
when all his guests were thus off his mind. He stood in the hall and
hesitated, and saw Willis watching him from a corner with undisguised
anxiety. Perhaps but for that he would have gone to his father; but with
every body watching him, looking on and speculating what it might be, he
could not go. And yet something must be done. At last, after he had
watched the last man out and the last lady go away, he turned, and went
slowly up stairs to Sara’s door.

When his voice was heard there was a little rush within, and Sara came
to him. She was very pale, and had the air of a watcher to whom the past
night had brought no sleep. It even seemed to Jack that she was in the
same dress that she had worn the previous night, though that was a
delusion. As soon as she saw that it was her brother, and that he was
alone, she sent the maid away, and taking him by the arm, drew him into
the little outer room. There had not been any sentimental fraternity
between them in a general way. They were very good friends, and fond of
each other, but not given to manifestations of sympathy and devotion.
But this time as soon as he was within the door and she had him to
herself, Sara threw her arms round Jack, and leaned against him, and
went off without any warning into a sudden burst of emotion–not tears
exactly. It was rather a struggle against tears. She sobbed and her
breast heaved, and she clasped him convulsively. Jack was terribly
surprised and shocked, feeling that so unusual an outburst must have a
serious cause, and he was very tender with his sister. It did not last
more than a minute, but it did more to convince him of the gravity of
the crisis than any thing else had done. Sara regained command of
herself almost immediately and ceased sobbing, and raised her head from
his shoulder. “She is there,” she whispered, pointing to the inner room,
and then she turned and went before him leading the way. The white
curtains of Sara’s bed were drawn at one side, so as to screen the
interior of the chamber. Within that enclosure a fire was burning
brightly, and seated by it in an easy-chair, wrapped in one of Sara’s
pretty dressing-gowns, with unaccustomed embroideries and soft frills
and ribbons enclosing her brown worn hands and meagre throat, Mrs.
Preston half sat, half reclined. The fire-light was flickering about
her, and she lay back and looked at it and at every thing around her
with a certain dreadful satisfaction. She looked round about upon the
room and its comforts as people look on a new purchase. Enjoyment–a
certain pleasure of possession–was written on her face.

When she saw Jack she moved a little, and drew the muslin wrapper more
closely around her throat with a curious instinct of prudish propriety.
It was the same woman to whose society he had accustomed himself as
Pamela’s mother, and whom he had tutored himself to look upon as a
necessary part of his future household, but yet she was a different
creature. He did not know her in this new development. He followed Sara
into her presence with a new sense of repulsion, a reluctance and
dislike which he had never felt before. And Mrs. Preston for her part
received him with an air which was utterly inexplicable–an air of
patronage which made his blood boil.

“I hope you are better,” he said, not knowing how to begin; and then,
after a pause, “Should not I go and tell Pamela that you are here? or
would you like me to take you home?”

“I consider myself at home,” said Mrs. Preston, sitting up suddenly and
bursting into speech. “I will send for Pamela, when it is all settled, I
am very thankful to your sister for taking care of me last night. She
shall find that it will be to her advantage. Sit down–I am sorry, Mr.
John, that I can not say the same for you.”

“What is it you can not say for me?” said Jack: “I don’t know in the
least what you would be at, Mrs. Preston; I suppose there must be some
explanation of this strange conduct. What does it mean?”

“You will find that it means a great deal,” said the changed woman.
“When you came to me to my poor little place, I did not want to have any
thing to say to you; but I never thought of putting any meaning to what
you, were doing. I was as innocent as a baby–I thought it was all love
to my poor child. That was what I thought. And now you’ve stolen her
heart away from me, and I know what it was for–I know what it was for.”

“Then what was it for?” said Jack, abruptly. He was by turns red and
pale with anger. He found it very hard to keep his temper now that he
was personally assailed.

“It was for this,” cried Pamela’s mother, with a shrill ring in her
voice, pointing, as it seemed, to the pretty furniture and pictures
round her–“for all this, and the fine house, and the park, and the
money–that was what it was for. You thought you’d marry her and keep it
all, and that I should never know what was my rights. But now I do
know;–and you would have killed me last night!” she cried wildly,
drawing back, with renewed passion–“you and your father; you would have
killed me; I should have been a dead woman by this time if it had not
been for her!”

Jack made a hoarse exclamation in his throat as she spoke. The room
seemed to be turning round with him. He seemed to be catching glimpses
of her meaning through some wild chaos of misunderstanding and darkness.
He himself had never wished her ill, not even when she promised to be a
burden on him. “Is she mad?” he said, turning to Sara; but he felt that
she was not mad; it was something more serious than that.

“I know my rights,” she said, calming down instantaneously. “It’s my
house you’ve been living in, and my money that has made you all so
fine. You need not start or pretend as if you didn’t know. It was for
that you came and beguiled my Pamela. You might have left me my Pamela;
house, and money, and every thing, even down to my poor mother’s
blessing,” said Mrs. Preston, breaking down pitifully, and falling into
a passion of tears. “You have taken them all, you and yours; but you
might have left me my child.”

Jack stood aghast while all this was being poured forth upon him; but
Sara for her part fell a-crying too. “She has been saying the same all
night,” said Sara; “what have we to do with her money or her mother’s
blessing? Oh, Jack, what have we to do with them? What does it mean? I
don’t understand any thing but about Pamela and you.”

“Nor I,” said Jack, in despair, and he made a little raid through the
room in his consternation, that the sight of the two women crying might
not make a fool of him; then he came back with the energy of
desperation. “Look here, Mrs. Preston,” he said, “there may be some
money question between my father and you–I can’t tell; but we have
nothing to do with it. I know nothing about it. I think most likely you
have been deceived somehow. But, right or wrong, this is not the way to
clear it up. Money can not be claimed in this wild way. Get a lawyer who
knows what he is doing to see after it for you; and in the mean time go
home like a rational creature. You can not be permitted to make a
disturbance here.”

“You shall never have a penny of it,” cried Mrs. Preston–“not a penny,
if you should be starving–nor Pamela either; I will tell her all–that
you wanted her for her money; and she will scorn you as I do–you shall
have nothing from her or me.”

“Answer for yourself,” cried Jack, furious, “or be silent. She shall not
be brought in. What do I care for your money? Sara, be quiet, and don’t
cry. She ought never to have been brought here.”

“No,” cried the old woman, in her passion, “I ought to have been cast
out on the roadside, don’t you think, to die if I liked? or I ought to
have been killed, as you tried last night. That’s what you would do to
me, while you slept soft and lived high. But my time has come. It’s you
who must go to the door–the door!–and you need expect no pity from
me.”

She sat in her feebleness and poverty as on a throne, and defied them,
and they stood together bewildered by their ignorance, and did not know
what answer to make her. Though it sounded like madness, it might be
true. For any thing they could tell, what she was saying might have some
foundation unknown to them. Sara by this time had dried her tears, and
indignation had begun to take the place of distress in her mind. She
gave her brother an appealing look, and clasped her hands. “Jack, answer
her–do you know what to say to her?” she cried, stamping her little
foot on the ground with impatience; “somebody must know; are we to stand
by and hear it all, and do nothing? Jack, answer her!–unless she is
mad–”

“I think she must be partly mad,” said Jack. “But it must be put a stop
to somehow. Go and fetch my father. He is in the library. Whatever it
may be, let us know at least what it means. I will stay with her here.”

When she heard these words, the strange inmate of Sara’s room came down
from her height and relapsed into a feeble old woman. She called Sara
not to go, to stay and protect her. She shrank back into her chair,
drawing it away into a corner at the farthest distance possible, and sat
there watchful and frightened, eying Jack as a hunted creature might eye
the tiger which might at any moment spring upon it. Jack, for his part,
with an exclamation of impatience, turned on his heel and went away from
her, as far as space would permit. Impatience began to swallow up every
other sentiment in his mind. He could not put up with it any longer.
Whatever the truth might be, it was evident that it must be faced and
acknowledged at once. While he kept walking about impatient and
exasperated, all his respect for Pamela’s mother died out of his mind;
even, it must be owned, in his excitement, the image of Pamela herself
went back into the mists. A certain disgust took possession of him. If
it was true that his father had schemed and struggled for the possession
of this woman’s miserable money–if the threat of claiming it had moved
him with some vague but awful temptation, such as Jack shuddered to
think of; and if the idea of having rights and possessing something had
changed the mild and humble woman who was Pamela’s mother into this
frantic and insulting fury, then what was there worth caring for, what
was there left to believe in, in this world? Perhaps even Pamela herself
had been changed by this terrible test. Jack did not wish for the wings
of a dove, being too matter-of-fact for that. But he felt as if he would
like to set out for New Zealand without saying a word to any body,
without breathing a syllable to a single soul on the way. It seemed as
if that would be the only thing to do–he himself might get frantic or
desperate too like the others about a little money. The backwoods,
sheep-shearing, any thing would be preferable to that.

This pause lasted for some minutes, for Sara did not immediately return.
When she came back, however, a heavier footstep accompanied her up the
stair. Mr. Brownlow came into the room, and went at once toward the
farther corner. He had made up his mind; once more he had become
perfectly composed, calm as an attorney watching his client’s case. He
called Jack to him, and went and stood by the table, facing Mrs.
Preston. “I hear you have sent for me to know the meaning of all this,”
he said; “I will tell you, for you have a right to know. Twenty-five
years ago, before either of you was born, I had some money left me,
which was to be transferred to a woman called Phœbe Thomson, if she
could be found out or appeared within twenty-five years. I searched for
her everywhere, but I could not find her. Latterly I forgot her
existence to a great extent. The five-and-twenty years were out last
night, and just before the period ended this–lady–as you both know,
appeared. She says she is Phœbe Thomson, the legatee I have told you
of. She may be so–I have nothing to say against her; but the proof lies
with her, not me. This is all the explanation there is to make.”

When he had said it he drew a long breath of relief. It was the truth.
It was not perhaps all the truth; but he had told the secret, which had
weighed him down for months, and the burden was off his heart. He felt a
little sick and giddy as he stood there before his children. He did not
look them in the face. In his heart he knew there were many more
particulars to tell. But it was not for them to judge of his heart. “I
have told you the secret, so far as there is a secret,” he said, with a
faint smile at them, and then sat down suddenly, exhausted with the
effort. It was not so difficult after all. Now that it was done, a faint
wonder crossed his mind that he had not done it long ago, and saved
himself all this trouble. But still he was glad to sit down. Somehow, it
took the strength out of him as few things had done before.

“A legatee!” burst forth Sara in amazement, not understanding the word.
“Is that all? Papa, she says the house is hers, and every thing is hers.
She says we have no right here. Is it true?”

As for Jack, he looked his father steadily in the face, asking, Was it
true? more imperiously than Sara’s words did. If this were all, what was
the meaning of the almost tragedy last night? They forgot the very
existence of the woman who was the cause of it all as they turned upon
him. Poverty and wealth were small matters in comparison. He was on his
trial at an awful tribunal, before judges too much alarmed, too deeply
interested, to be lenient. They turned their backs upon Mrs. Preston,
who, notwithstanding her fear and her anxiety, could not bear the
neglect. Their disregard of her roused her out of her own
self-confidence and certainty, to listen with a certain forlorn
eagerness. She had not paid much attention to what Mr. Brownlow said the
first time. What did it matter what he said? Did not she know better?
But when Jack and Sara turned their backs on her, and fixed their eyes
on their father, she woke up with an intense mortification and
disappointment at finding herself overlooked, and began to listen too.

Mr. Brownlow rose up as a man naturally does who has to plead guilty or
not guilty for his life. He stood before them, putting his hand on the
table to support himself. “It is not true,” he said, “I do not deny that
I have been thinking a great deal about this. If I had but known, I
should have told you; but these are the real facts. If she is Phœbe
Thomson, as she says–though of that we have no proof–she is entitled
to fifty thousand pounds which her mother left her. That is the whole.
To pay her her legacy may force me to leave this house, and change our
mode of living; but she has nothing to do with the house–nothing here
is hers, absolutely nothing. She has no more to do with Brownlows than
your baker has, or your dress-maker. If she is Phœbe Thomson, I shall
owe her money–nothing more. I might have told you, if I had but known.”

What Mr. Brownlow meant was, that he would have told them had he known,
after all, how little it would cost to tell it. After all, there was
nothing disgraceful in the tale, notwithstanding the terrible shifts to
which he had put himself to conceal it. He had spoken it out, and now
his mind was free. If he had but known what a relief it would be! But he
sat down as soon as he had finished speaking; and he did not feel as if
he could pay much attention to any thing else. His mind was in a state
of confusion about what had happened the previous night. It seemed to
him that he had said or done something he ought not to have done or
said. But now he had made his supreme disclosure, and given up the
struggle. It did not much matter what occurred besides.

Mrs. Preston, however, who had been listening eagerly, and whom nobody
regarded for the moment, rose up and made a step forward among them. “He
may deny it,” she said, trembling; “but I know he’s known it all this
time, and kept us out of our rights. Fifty pound–fifty thousand
pound–what does he say? I know better. It is all mine, every penny, and
he’s been keeping us out of our rights. You’ve been all fed and
nourished on what was mine–your horses and your carriages, and all your
grandeur; and he says it’s but fifty pounds! Don’t you remember that
there’s One that protects the fatherless?” she cried out, almost
screaming. The very sight of his composure made her wild and desperate.
“You make no account of me,” she cried–“no more than if I was the dust
under your feet, and I’m the mistress of all–of all; and if it had not
been for her you would have killed me last night.”

These words penetrated even Mr. Brownlow’s stupor; he gave a shudder as
if with the cold.

“I was very hard driven last night,” he said, as if to himself–“very
hard put to it. I don’t know what I may have said.” Then he made a
pause, and rose and went to his enemy, who fell back into the chair, and
took fright as he approached her, putting out her two feeble hands to
defend herself. “If you are Phœbe Thomson,” he said, “you shall have
your rights. I know nothing about you–I never thought of you. This
house is mine, and you have nothing to do here. All you have any right
to is your money, and you shall have your money when you prove your
identity. But I can not leave you here to distress my child. If you are
able to think at all, you must see that you ought to go home. Send for
the carriage to take her home,” Mr. Brownlow added, turning to his
children. “If she is the person she calls herself, she is a relation of
your mother’s; and anyhow, she is weak and old. Take care of her. Sara,
my darling, you are not to stay here with her, nor let her vex you; but
I leave her in your hands.”

“I will do what you tell me, papa,” said Sara; and then he stood for a
moment and looked at them wistfully. They had forsaken him last night;
both of them–or at least so he fancied–had gone over to the enemy; and
that had cut him to the heart. Now he turned to them wistfully, looking
for a little support and comfort. It would not be so hard after all if
his children went with him into captivity. They had both been so
startled and excited that but for this look, and the lingering,
expectant pause he made, neither would have thought of their father’s
feelings. But it was impossible to misunderstand him now. Sara, in her
impulsive way, went up to him and put her arms round his neck. “Papa, it
is we who have been hard upon you,” she said; and as for Jack, who could
not show his feelings by an embrace, he also made a kind of _amende_ in
an ungracious masculine way. He said, “I’m coming with you, sir. I’ll
see after the carriage,” and marched off behind his father to the door.
Neither of them took any farther notice of Mrs. Preston. It seemed to
her as if they did not care. They were not afraid of her; they did not
come obsequiously to her feet, as she had thought they would. On the
contrary, they were banding together among themselves against her,
making a league among themselves, taking no notice of her. And her own
child was not there to comfort her heart. It was a great shock and
downfall to the unhappy woman. She had been a good woman so long as she
was untempted. But it had seemed to her, in the wonderful prospect of a
great fortune, that every body would fall at her feet; that she would be
able to do what she pleased–to deal with all her surroundings as she
pleased. When she saw she could not do so, her mind grew confused–fifty
pound, fifty thousand pound, which was it? And she was alone, and they
were all banding themselves against her. Money seemed nothing in
comparison to the elevation, the supremacy she had dreamed of. And they
did not even take the trouble to look at her as they went away!

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