THE REAL TRAITOR

While these things were going on at the gate of Brownlows, a totally
different scene was being enacted in Masterton. Mr. Brownlow was at his
office, occupied with his business and the people in his house, and the
hundred affairs which make up a man’s life. And as he had little time to
brood over it, it had very much gone out of his mind how near he was to
the crisis of his fate. An unexperienced sailor when he sees the port
near is apt to be lulled into a dream of safety, though the warier
seaman knows that it is the most dangerous moment. Mr. Brownlow was not
inexperienced, but yet he allowed himself to be deluded into this sense
of security after all his terrors. Young Powys came to business every
day, and was very steady and regular, and a little disconsolate,
evidently having nothing in his mind which could alarm his employer.
When Mr. Brownlow looked up and saw the young fellow going steadily and
sadly about his business, it sometimes gave him a sense of compunction,
but it no longer filled him with fear. He had come to think the youth
was harmless, and with the base instinct of human nature no longer cared
for him. At least he cared for him in a different way; he promised to
himself to make it all up to him afterward–to be his providence, and
looked after him and establish him in the world–to give him no reason
to repent having entrusted his fortunes to his hands. This was how Mr.
Brownlow was thinking; and he had succeeded in making himself believe
that this course was far the best for Powys. As for justice, it was
rarely to be had under any circumstances. This young fellow had no more
right to it than another; probably if mere justice had been dealt to him
it would have been the ruin of him, as well as the ruin of other people.
His _real_ advantage after all was what Mr. Brownlow studied. Such
thoughts by dint of practice became easier and more natural. The lawyer
actually began to feel and believe that for every body concerned he was
taking the best course; and the September days wore on, blazing, sultry,
splendid, with crack of guns over the stubble, and sound of mirth
in-doors, where every room was full and every association cheerful. It
would only have been making Powys uncomfortable (Mr. Brownlow reflected)
to have invited him at that moment among so many people, even if the
accident with Sara had not prevented it. By and by, when all was safe,
Sara should go away in her turn to visit her friends, and Powys should
be had out to Brownlows, and have the remains of the sport, and be
received with paternal kindness. This was the plan Mr. Brownlow had
formed, and in the mean time he was cheerful and merry, and no way
afraid of his fate.

Things were so when one morning he received a sudden message from old
Mrs. Fennell. He had not been to see her for a long time. He had
preferred, as far as possible, to ignore her very existence. His own
conduct appeared to him in a different light when he saw her. It was
blacker, more heinous, altogether vile, when he caught the reflection of
it as in a distorted mirror in the old woman’s suggestions. And it made
Mr. Brownlow very uncomfortable. But this morning the summons was
urgent. It was conveyed in a note from his mother-in-law herself. The
billet was written on a scrap of paper, in a hand which had never been
good, and was now shaky and irregular with old age. “I want to speak to
you particular.” Mrs. Fennell wrote. “It’s about old Nancy and her
goings on. There’s something astir that is against your advantage and
the children. Don’t waste any time, but come to me;” and across the
envelope she had written _Immediate_ in letters half an inch long. Mr.
Brownlow had a momentary thrill, and then he smiled to himself in the
imbecility of self-delusion. “Some fancy she has taken into her head,”
he said. Last time she had sent for him her fears had come to nothing,
and _his_ fears, which were exaggerated, as he now thought, had worn out
all his capabilities of feeling. He took it quite calmly now. When he
had freed himself of his more pressing duties, he took his hat, and went
leisurely across the market-place, to his mother-in-law’s lodgings. The
door was opened to him by Nancy, in whose looks he discovered nothing
particular; and it did not even strike him as singular that she followed
him up stairs, and went in after him to Mrs. Fennell’s sitting-room. The
old lady herself was sitting in a great chair, with her foot upon a high
footstool, and all her best clothes on, as for an occasion of great
solemnity. Her head was in continued palsied motion, and her whole
figure trembling with excitement. She did not even wait until Mr.
Brownlow had taken the chair which Nancy offered him with unusual
politeness. “Shut the door,” she cried. “Nancy, don’t you go near Mr.
Brownlow with your wiles, but shut the door and keep in your own place.
Keep in your own place–do; and don’t fuss about a gentleman as if that
was to change his opinion, you old fool, at your age.”

“I’m but doing my duty,” said Nancy; “it’s little change my wiles could
make on a gentleman–never at no age as I know on–and never with Mr.
Brownlow–”

“Hold your peace,” cried Mrs. Fennell. “I know your tricks. You’re old,
and you should know better; but a woman never thinks as it’s all over
with her. John Brownlow, you look in that woman’s face and listen to me.
You’ve given her food and clothes and a roof over her head for years and
years, and a wage that I never could see the reason for; and here she’s
been a-conspiring and a-treating with your enemies. I’ve found her out,
though I am old and feeble. Ne’er a one of them can escape me. I tell
you she’s been conspiring with your enemies. I don’t say that you’ve
been overkind to me; but I can’t sit by and see my Bessie’s children
wronged; and I’ve brought you here to set you face to face and hear what
she’s got to say.”

Mr. Brownlow listened to her without changing countenance; he held his
breath hard, and when she ceased speaking he let it go with a long
respiration, such as a man draws after a great shock. But that was the
only sign of emotion he showed; partly because he was stunned by the
unexpected blow; partly because he felt that her every word betrayed
him, and that nothing but utter self-command could do him any good.

“What does this mean?” he said, turning from Mrs. Fennell to Nancy. “Who
are my enemies? If you have any thing to say against Nancy, or if Nancy
has any thing to say–”

“She’s a traitor,” cried Mrs. Fennell, with a voice which rose almost to
a scream. “She’s a real traitor;–she eats your bread, and she’s
betrayed you. That’s what I mean and it’s as clear as day.”

All this time Nancy stood steadily, stolidly by, with her hand on the
back of the chair, not defiant but watchful. She had no wish to lose her
place, and her wages, and her comforts; but yet, if she were sent away,
she had a claim upon the other side. She had made herself a friend like
the unjust steward. And she stood and watched and saw all that passed,
and formed her conclusions.

Therefore she was in no way disturbed when Mr. Brownlow turned round and
looked her in the face. He was very steady and self-possessed, yet she
saw by the way that he turned round on his chair, by the grasp he took
of the back of it, by the movement of his eyelids, that every word had
told upon him. “You must speak a little more plainly,” he said, with an
attempt at a smile. “Perhaps you will give me your own account of it,
Nancy. Whom have you been conspiring with? Who are my enemies? I think I
am tolerably at peace with all the world, and I don’t know.”

Nancy paused with momentary hesitation, whether to speak the simple
truth, and see the earthquake which would ensue, which was a suggestion
made by the dramatic instinct within her–or whether to keep on the safe
side and deny all knowledge of it. If she had been younger, probably she
would have preferred the former for the sake of excitement; but being
old she chose the latter. She grew meek under Mr. Brownlow’s eyes, so
meek that he felt it an outrage on his good sense, and answered softly
as became a woman anxious to turn away wrath.

“Nor me, sir,” said Nancy, “_I_ don’t know. If I heard of one as was
your enemy, it would be reason enough to me for never looking nigh, him.
I’ve served you and yours for long, and it’s my place to be faithful.
I’ve been a-seeing of some old friends as lives a little bit out o’
Masterton. I’m but a servant, Mr. Brownlow, but I’ve some friends; and I
never heard as you was one to think as poor folks had no heart. It was a
widow woman, as has seen better days; it ain’t much I can do for her,
but she’s old, and she’s poor, and I go to see her a bit times and
times. I hope there ain’t nothing in _that_ that displeases you. If I
stayed longer than I ought last time–”

“What is all this to me?” said Mr. Brownlow. “Who is your widow woman?
Do you want me to do any thing for her? has she a family? There are
plenty of charities in Masterton if she belongs to the place. But it
does not seem worth while to have brought me here for this.”

“You know better than that, John Brownlow,” said Mrs. Fennel, in a kind
of frenzy. “If it was any poor woman, what would I have cared? Let ’em
starve, the hussies, as brings it all on themselves. There’s but one
woman as would trouble me, and you know who it is, John Brownlow; and
that old witch there, she knows, and it’s time to put a stop to it all.
It’s time to put a stop to it all, I say. She’s a-carrying on with that
woman; and my Bessie’s children will be robbed before my very eyes; and
I’m a poor old creature, and their own father as ought to take their
part! I tell you, it’s that woman as she’s a-carrying on with; and
they’ll be robbed and ruined, my pretty dears, my Bessie’s children! and
she’ll have it all, that wretch! I’d kill her, I’d strangle her, I’d
murder her, if it was me!”

Mrs. Fennell’s eyes were blood-shot, and rolled in their sockets
wildly–her head shook with palsied rage–her voice stammered and
staggered–and she lifted her poor old lean hands with wild, incoherent
gestures. She was half-mad with passion and excitement. She, who was so
terribly in earnest, so eager in her insane desire to save him, was in
reality the traitor whom he had most to fear; and Mr. Brownlow had his
senses sufficiently about him to perceive this. He exerted himself to
calm her down and soothe her. “I will see after it–I will see after
it,” he said. “I will speak to Nancy–don’t excite yourself.” As for
Mrs. Fennell, not his persuasion, but her own passion wore her out
presently, and reduced her to comparative calm; after awhile she sank
into silence, and the half doze, half stupor of extreme age. When this
re-action had come on, Mr. Brownlow left the room, making a sign to
Nancy to follow him, which the old woman did with gradually-rising
excitement, feeling that now indeed her turn had come. But he did not
take her apart, as she had hoped and supposed, to have a desperate
passage of arms. He turned round on the stair, though the landlady stood
below within hearing ready to open the door, and spoke to her calmly and
coldly. “Has she been long like this?” he said, and looked Nancy so
steadily in the face that, for the first time, she was discomfited, and
lost all clue to his meaning. She stood and stared at him for a minute,
not knowing what to say.

“Has she been long like this?” Mr. Brownlow repeated a little sharply.
“I must see after a doctor at once. How long has it lasted? I suppose no
one can tell but you?”

“It’s lasted–but I don’t know, sir,” said Nancy, “I don’t know; I
couldn’t say, as it was nothing the matter with her head. She thinks as
there’s a foundation. It’s her notion as I’ve found out–”

“That will do,” said Mr. Brownlow; “I have no curiosity about your
friends. It is your mistress’s health I am thinking of. I will call on
Dr. Bayley as I go back; and you will see that she is kept quiet, and
has every attention. I am grieved to see her in such an excited state.
And, by the way, you will have the goodness not to leave her again. If
your friends require your visits, let me know, and I will send a nurse.
If it has been neglect that has brought this on, you may be sure it will
tell on yourself afterward,” Mr. Brownlow added, as he went out. All
this was said in the presence of the mistress of the house, who heard
and enjoyed it. And he went away without another look at her, without
another word, without praying for her silence, or pleading with her for
her secret, as she had expected. Nancy was confounded, notwithstanding
all her knowledge. She stood and stared after him with a sinking heart,
wondering if there were circumstances she did not know, which held him
harmless, and whether after all it had been wise of her to attach
herself to the cause of his adversaries. She was disappointed with the
effect she had produced–disappointed of the passage of arms she had
expected, and the keen cross-examination which she had been prepared to
baffle. She looked so blank that the landlady, looking on, felt that she
too could venture on a passing arrow.

“You’ll take my word another time, Nancy,” she said. “I told you as it
was shameful neglect to go and leave her all by herself, and her so old
and weakly, poor soul! You don’t mind the likes of us, but you’ll have
to mind what your master says.”

“He ain’t no master of mine,” said Nancy, fiercely, “nor you ain’t my
mistress, Lord be praised. You mind your own business, and I’ll mind
mine. It’s fine to be John Brownlow, with all his grandeur; but pride
goes before a fall, is what I says,” the old woman muttered, as she went
back to Mrs. Fennell’s room. She had said so at Brownlows, looking at
the avenue which led to the great house, and at the cozy little lodge
out of which she had already planned to turn old Betty. That vision rose
before her at this trying moment, and comforted her a little. On the one
side the comfortable lodge, and an easy life, and the prospect of
unbounded tyranny over a new possessor, who should owe every thing to
her; but, on the other side, dismissal from her present post, which was
not unprofitable, an end of her good wages and all her consolations.
Nancy drew her breath hard at the contrast; the risk seemed to her as
great almost as the hope.

Mr. Brownlow left the door composed and serious, as a man does who has
just been in the presence of severe perhaps fatal illness, and he went
to Dr. Bayley, and told that gentleman that his mother-in-law’s brain
was, he feared, giving way, and begged him to see her immediately; and
then he went to the office, grave and silent, without a touch of
apparent excitement. When he got there, he stopped in the outer office,
and called Powys into his own room. “We have not seen you at Brownlows
for a long time,” he said. “Jack has some young fellows with him
shooting. You had better take a week’s holiday, and come up with me
to-night. I shall make it all right with Wrinkell. You can go home and
get your bag before the dog-cart comes.”

He said this quickly, without any pause for consideration, as if he had
been giving instructions about some deed drawing out; and it was some
time before Powys realized the prospect of paradise thus opening before
him. “I, sir–do you mean me?” he cried, in his amazement. “To-night?”
And Mr. Brownlow appeared to his clerk as if he had been an angel from
heaven.

“Yes,” he said, with a smile, “to-night. I suppose you can do it? You do
not want much preparation for pleasure at your age.”

Then poor Powys suddenly turned very pale. Out of the first glow of
delight he sank into despondency. “I don’t know, sir–if you may have
forgotten–what I once said to you–about–about my folly,” faltered the
young man, not daring to look into his employer’s face.

“About–?” said Mr. Brownlow; and then he made as though he suddenly
recollected, and laughed. “Oh, yes, I remember,” he said. “I suppose all
young men are fools sometimes in that respect. But I don’t see it is any
business of mine. You can settle it between you. Be ready for me at six
o’clock.”

And thus it was all arranged. Powys went out to get his things, not
knowing whether he walked or flew, in such a sudden amaze of delight as
few men ever experience; and when he was gone Mr. Brownlow put down his
ashy face into his clasped hands. Heaven! had it come to this? At the
last moment, when the shore was so near, the tempest well-nigh spent,
deliverance at hand, was there no resource but this, no escape? All his
precautions vain, his wiles, his struggle of conscience! His face was
like that of a dead man as he sat by himself and realized what had
happened. Why could not he fly to the end of earth, and escape the
Nemesis? Was there nothing for it but, like that other wretched father,
to sacrifice his spotless child?