Benjamin Farjeon.

Miser Farebrother: A Novel (vol. 1 of 3)



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"Yes, I did," replied the perplexed mother.

"Well, there it is, then," said Fanny; and as her mother did not speak, she relentlessly opened another broadside.

"If an honourable gentleman really and truly loves a young lady, and if a young lady really and truly loves him in return, and if they are worthy of each other, and if there is a fair prospect of his getting along in the world in an honourable profession, and of their being truly happy together, ought they not to marry in spite of a miserly hunks of a father?"

"My dear," said Mrs. Lethbridge, "let us drop the subject, and hope for the best."

"Thank you, mother. We know that Ph?be is not happy at home."

"It is so, unfortunately."

"And we know that our home is hers if she should ever be without one."

"Yes, my dear."

"Then, my own dearest mother," said Fanny, putting her arms round the good mother's neck and showering kisses upon her, "there is nothing more to be said."

CHAPTER XVIII
MRS. PAMFLETT DEVELOPS A SUDDEN AFFECTION FOR PH?BE

Uncle Leth's day-dream was not realized – but then his day-dreams never were. When he and his family, travelling third-class, reached the station for Parksides, there was no Miser Farebrother to receive them with open arms and a carriage. Ph?be was there, and that was quite as good – almost more than they expected. She was a favourite with the station-master and ticket-takers, who always admitted her to the platform, whether the gates were closed or not; and the Lethbridges, looking out of the window, saw her waving her handkerchief to them, and running along the platform, the moment they were in sight. Then there was such a kissing and hugging as made the hearts of the unenvious ones glad to witness, and the mouths of the envious ones to water, wishing they had a free ticket to participate in an entertainment so delightful.

"It is good of you to come and meet us," said Fanny. "I was wondering all the way whether you would."

"I did not know whether I should be able," said Ph?be, in a flutter of excitement; "but Mrs. Pamflett has been very kind. I hardly liked to ask her to help me with the tea; but she came and offered of her own accord, and said perhaps I would like to go and meet my friends. So here I am."

Mr. Lethbridge opened his ears upon mention of Mrs. Pamflett, and he was glad to hear so good an account of her. An act of thoughtfulness and good-nature from her was a guarantee for her son, who had discounted his acceptance for three hundred pounds for the dramatic author and Kiss.

They had all brought modest birthday presents for Ph?be, which they handed to her at once, with flowers and kisses and the best of affectionate wishes. Bob was in the seventh heaven in consequence of being allowed a share in the kissing business.

"I did not have time to write to you last night," whispered Fanny to Ph?be. "He has come home, and had tea with us.

He is looking so well! brown, and handsomer than ever. What a perfectly lovely day!"

They walked to Parksides, expressing pleasure at everything – at the weather, at the scenery, at the pretty village, at the children, at the cottages, at the church – all of which, it seemed to the little party, had put on a holiday garb in honour of Ph?be. The flowers were brighter, the sunlight clearer, the birds sang more sweetly, as they walked and talked, each of the Lethbridges claiming a share in Ph?be's society, and each obtaining it. Now with Bob, now with Fanny, now with Aunt Leth, now with Uncle – she ran from one to another, chatting gaily, and bursting out into snatches of song. It was her day, her very own – a day of sunshine without and within.

Mrs. Pamflett's amiability needs a word of explanation. The conversation she had had with her son Jeremiah had opened her eyes as to his intentions; and both to please him and to win Ph?be's favour she had offered to assist the young girl. But for Jeremiah's sake she would not have dreamt of such a thing. She had lain awake half the night thinking of the conversation, and she had come to the conclusion that it would be a fine match for Jeremiah. Much as she had disliked Ph?be, she admired her son for his ambition. Miser Farebrother's "aching of bones" was growing worse every week, every day; suffering as he did, it would soon be impossible for him to give any personal attention to his business in London. No one understood it, no one could attend to it, but Jeremiah. What, then, was more feasible than Jeremiah's scheme of becoming Miser Farebrother's son-in-law? "To think," she mused in the night, "that it never entered my mind! But Jeremiah's got a head on him. He will be a millionaire, and I shall be a lady!" The idea of a repulse – that Ph?be would not think Jeremiah good enough for her – never occurred to Mrs. Pamflett; if it had, she would have rejected it with scorn. What! her son, her bright boy – handsome, shrewd, and clever – not good enough for the best lady in the land! A little chit like Ph?be might consider herself lucky that such a man as Jeremiah should condescend to her. "I can't, for the life of me, see," she mused, "why Jeremiah should be so taken with her; but there's no accounting for a man's fancies. And then he said he wasn't particular. Ah! Jeremiah knows what he's about." All her hopes, all her desires, all her ambitions, being centred in her bright boy, she determined to assist him by every means in her power. She commenced the next morning, on this happy birthday, and, to Ph?be's surprise, wished her a happy birthday and many returns of them, and offered to relieve the young girl of all responsibility in the preparing of the tea for her friends. Ph?be met her advances gladly. On such a day no suspicion of sinister motives could occur to a nature so sweet, so pure, so innocent; and when Mrs. Pamflett asked her to accept a brooch, she received it with a pleasant feeling of gratitude. "It is an old brooch," Mrs. Pamflett said, "a memento; and although it is not very valuable, it comes from my heart." There was a certain literal truth in this, because the brooch was one which Mrs. Pamflett was in the habit of wearing; it might not have been considered a very suitable gift for a young girl like Ph?be, as it contained a lock of some dead-and-gone person's hair, arranged as a feather or a curl over a tombstone. Once upon a time it doubtless had a meaning, and might have brought a light of joy or sorrow to special human eyes; but the memories which sanctified it being deader than the deadest ghost that superstition could conjure up, it certainly could not be considered a suitable gift for Ph?be. Its fatal meaning for her lay in the future.

When Mrs. Pamflett said to Ph?be that perhaps she would like to go and meet her friends at the railway station, she thought it likely that Jeremiah would be in the train. He had not told her by which train he was coming, and her desire was to give him an opportunity of walking home with Ph?be. She did not betray herself when she saw Ph?be return in the company of the Lethbridges and without Jeremiah. She possessed a gift invaluable to sly, secretive natures – the gift of absolute self-repression. Ph?be introduced Mrs. Pamflett to her friends. Aunt Leth was already acquainted with her, and was astonished at the graciousness and amiability of the housekeeper, her previous experience of her having been quite the reverse. Uncle Leth nodded and said, "How d'ye do?" but Fanny was rather stiff – "uppish," as Mrs. Pamflett subsequently told her son.

"Tea will not be ready for half an hour or so," said Mrs. Pamflett, aside, to Ph?be. "I have set it upstairs in your favourite room."

"O," was Phoebe's delighted rejoinder, "how kind of you!"

"I want you to love me," said Mrs. Pamflett. "If you find that my only wish is to please you, perhaps you will."

"Indeed I will," said Ph?be; and thought, "Perhaps my father will love me too."

She asked the Lethbridges to wait a moment or two, and she went to her father's room.

"Aunt and uncle are here, and my cousins."

"What has that to do with me?" he asked.

"May they come up and see you, father?"

"No," he replied; "I can't be bothered. They wish to see me as little as I wish to see them."

While this last question was being asked and answered, Mrs. Pamflett entered the room.

"I think you should see them, sir," she said.

"Why?" he asked.

"As a mark of politeness," said Mrs. Pamflett. "Mr. Lethbridge and your nephew and niece have never been here before, and they might think it rude of you."

"Do I care if they do?" he snarled.

"It is not that," she answered, calmly, "but it is Miss Ph?be's birthday."

"Mrs. Pamflett is very kind," said Ph?be, nervously, "but if you don't wish, father – "

"I wish to do what is right," he said, very coolly, as was his habit when he was opposed.

"We all know that," said Mrs. Pamflett, in a voice as composed as his own. "You always do what is right. Mr. and Mrs. Lethbridge and their children are going to have tea with Miss Ph?be in honour of her birthday, and I have been getting it ready, and am going to wait on them. You ought to join them. I have set a chair for you at the head of the table."

"Oh, father, if you would!" implored Ph?be, clasping her hands.

"You wish it?" he asked of her, but not removing his eyes from Mrs. Pamflett's face.

"Yes, father. If you would only be so good!"

"And you wish it?" he asked of Mrs. Pamflett.

"For Miss Ph?be's sake I do," replied Mrs. Pamflett, without so much as winking an eyelid.

"Not for your own?"

"I have told you what I think."

"Let it be so," said Miser Farebrother. "Ph?be, I will take tea with you and your friends."

"Oh, papa!" In her gratitude the affectionate girl – only too ready to give love for love – threw her arms round her father's neck and kissed him.

"There! there!" he said, pushing her away; "go down to your friends. You can stop, Mrs. Pamflett."

Ph?be ran down-stairs to convey the good news to the Lethbridges, and Mrs. Pamflett and the miser were left together.

"Now, Mrs. Pamflett," he said abruptly, "what is all this about?"

"I do not understand you," was her reply.

"You understand me thoroughly," he said. "I can't see through a millstone, but I can see through you."

"Then why do you ask me to explain anything?" she retorted.

"You have lived here sixteen years," he said, "and you think you know me as well as I am sure I know you. Because I have never interfered with you, because I have allowed you to do as you like – "

She interrupted him here. "Have I ever wasted a penny of your money?"

"To my knowledge, no. If you had, you would have heard of it."

"Yes, that is very certain. Every farthing spent in this house has been accounted for in the book which you look over every week. You would find it hard to get anybody in my place."

"Oh, that is it! You threaten to leave me!"

"You are not only mistaken, you know you are stating an untruth. Yes, an untruth." The words denoted indignation, but it was not expressed in her voice or manner.

"Is that a proper way to speak to me?" he cried.

"I pass no opinion," was her unimpassioned reply. "If you are tired of me, or if I do not please you, you can send me away."

"You would go?"

"I should be bound to go. What else could I do? If I refused, you could call in the police."

"You are bent upon exasperating me, I see. You know I could not do without you."

"I know it."

"And that is why you are impudent to me."

"You have never found me so."

"Because I am bound to you hand and foot, because you know my ways, having grown into them, because I depend upon you and trust you, because I am weak and ill and dependent, you think you can twist me about as you like. You shall find that you are mistaken."

"Do you wish me to leave Parksides to-night? I will go and get ready."

He glared at her. "Well, why don't you go?"

"I am waiting for orders. Give them, and I will obey you – as I have obeyed you in everything else."

"You have no more wish to leave me," he said, laughing scornfully, "than I have that you should. You could no more do without me than I could do without you."

"There may be a balance," she said, "and it may be to my credit. You seem to be angry because I have made an endeavour to please your daughter."

"Have you ever endeavoured to please her before to-day?" he asked slyly.

"Have you," she retorted, "ever taken the trouble to ascertain?"

He paused awhile before he spoke. "Having been imprisoned up here, out of sight of things, with no eyes for anything beyond this room, you may think I haven't known what is going on in my house. You are mistaken – egregiously mistaken – as mistaken as your son Jeremiah, who perhaps has an idea that I do not know when I am absent what is going on in my office in London."

"Do you wish him to leave as well as me?" said Mrs. Pamflett. The conspicuous and amazing feature of her speech was that she made these propositions as though they did not in the slightest degree affect her, or any person in whom she was interested. "With his talents for business, he will not have the least difficulty in obtaining a position of trust elsewhere."

"I have unmasked you," said Miser Farebrother; "you have a design. Out with it."

"I have no design," said Mrs. Pamflett, "except your interests; and if it happens that your interests and ours – "

"And ours!" he cried.

"And ours," she repeated. "If it happens that our interests are identical, it should rather please than anger you. You say that you are bound hand and foot to me. That is a compliment, and I am obliged to you; but supposing it to be true, I am as much bound hand and foot to you, and so is my son Jeremiah. It may be in your power to so chain him to you that he would become an absolute slave to your interests."

"Interests again!" he exclaimed, impatiently. "Always interests – nothing but interests."

"Well," said Mrs. Pamflett, "what do we live for? What do you live for?"

This was a home thrust indeed, and Miser Farebrother accepted it in good part. Despite the outward aspect of this singular conversation, it was not entirely disagreeable to him. He appreciated the services of Mrs. Pamflett and her son; he knew that he could not replace them; he had not left it to the present hour to reckon up their monetary value.

"To come back to Ph?be," he said; "what is all this about? No beating about the bush – plain speaking."

"I love her," said Mrs. Pamflett, "as a daughter."

"And Jeremiah is your only son?"

"My only son. The best, the brightest, the cleverest man in England! And devoted to you, body and soul."

"I am infinitely obliged to you," said Miser Farebrother, with a malicious grin; "I will think about it."

CHAPTER XIX
A BEAUTIFUL BIRTHDAY

Miser Farebrother did not keep his promise of taking tea with Ph?be and her friends – he had matter more serious to occupy him – but to some extent he made atonement for it. He sent for Ph?be, and told her that he did not feel equal to the excitement, but that, before the evening was over, he would welcome Mr. and Mrs. Lethbridge and her cousins to Parksides. This, to Ph?be, was almost as good as the keeping of his promise; he spoke in a feeble voice, as though he was ill, and his unexpected kindness and consideration touched her. She put her hand timidly upon his shoulder, moved thereto by sweet pity for his condition, and he did not repulse her; she was even bold enough to lower her face to his and kiss him more than once, and he bore it contentedly. A new feeling stirred her heart, new hopes were born within her. That this unexpected change in her father's bearing toward her should take place on her birthday was a happy omen, and she was deeply grateful for it. From this time forth her home life would bring her joy instead of sorrow. She went from her father's room with a light step, ready to burst forth into song.

The feeble voice in which Miser Farebrother had spoken to Ph?be was assumed; his weakness was assumed; all the time she was with him he was watching her keenly and warily. He had never thought of her but as a child; the idea of her marrying had never entered his head; but now that it was presented to him he seized upon it and turned it about to the light. The only friends his daughter had were the Lethbridges; they had a son, who doubtless would be only too ready to snap at such a bait as Ph?be. For her sake? – because he loved her? – not at all. Because her father was supposed to be rich; because of the money he would calculate upon getting with her. And thereafter there would ever and eternally be but one cry – money, money, money! All their arts, all their endeavours, their only object, would be to bleed his money-bags bare. "No, no, Mr. Lethbridge," thought Miser Farebrother, "not a penny shall ever pass from my pockets to yours." But the danger might not present itself through the Lethbridges. Ph?be might fall in love with a spendthrift or a cunning rogue. That would be as bad – worse, perhaps. Despite his aversion to the Lethbridges, his experience of them had taught him that they were proud, and that in the event of Ph?be marrying into their family there would be a chance of respite for him after a time, a chance that they would make up their minds to submit to poverty, and trouble him no more. With a spendthrift it would be different. There would be no peace for him; the appeals for money would be incessant; he would be torn to pieces with worry. Then came the cunning rogue on to the scene, in the shape which was most objectionable to Miser Farebrother, in that of a scheming lawyer. There was more to fear from that than from any other aspect of the subject. Miser Farebrother knew the power of the law when he invoked it on his side – which he never did without being prepared with stamped deeds and witnessed signatures – but he knew also the power of the law if, in certain cases which he could call to mind, it were invoked against him. Plaintiff and defendant were different things, had different chances. He himself never prosecuted without weighing the minutest chance, without being absolutely certain that he was standing on sure legal ground. He had submitted to losses rather than run a risk. There was one instance in which a disreputable, out-at-elbows, dissipated lawyer had defied him to his teeth – had unblushingly defrauded him by threatening exposure. Miser Farebrother, knowing that certain transactions in which he was principal would not bear the light, had submitted to be robbed rather than be dragged into the witness-box and cross-examined. Such inquiries often commence tamely, but there is no saying where they lead to; a man's smallest peccadilloes are shamelessly dragged forth, his very soul is turned inside out. Then there are judges who, the moment a money-lending case comes before them, set to work on the debtor's side to defraud the creditor. Miser Farebrother, therefore, was wise in his generation in the tactics he pursued. Some low-minded scheming limb of the law might pay court to Ph?be, with but one end in view. The thought of it sent a shiver through his nerves.

His reflections were not agreeable, but he had a large amount of common-sense, and he knew they might be serviceable. He was not displeased with Mrs. Pamflett for suggesting them. She was a useful woman; truly, as he had said, he would not have known what to do without her. She had made the same admission on her side; that was honest of her. There were conditions of life which a sensible man must accept and make the best of, and his was one. Not being able to purchase a new set of bones and nerves, he felt that to a great extent he was at the mercy of Mrs. Pamflett and Jeremiah. As difficult to replace the loss of Jeremiah in his London office as to replace the loss of Mrs. Pamflett in his house at Parksides. It was a wretched state of things, but it must be borne, and as much profit as possible made out of it. "Ph?be had only herself to blame," he thought, with monstrous mental distortion. "If she had been a boy instead of a girl, it would all have been different."

There was no mistaking the meaning of Mrs. Pamflett's references to her son. Well, Ph?be might do worse; and if, as Mrs. Pamflett had said, he could so bind Jeremiah to him as to make him an absolute slave to his interests, such a marriage might be altogether the best thing that could happen. It would be an additional protection to Miser Farebrother's money-bags. "I will bind him tight," thought the miser – "tight! Clever lad, Jeremiah; but I shall be a match for him."

Not a thought of his daughter's happiness; she would have to do as he ordered. Thus, in the secrecy of Miser Farebrother's room, the web was forming in which Ph?be was to be entangled and her happiness wrecked.

Outside this room everything was bright. Ph?be had told Aunt and Uncle Leth of her father's goodness, and they, simple-minded and guileless as herself, rejoiced with her. "Upon my word," said Uncle Leth, "it almost makes my dream true." Ph?be moved about, singing, smiling, laughing to herself now and then, and scattering flowers of gladness all around her. "I never saw our dear Ph?be so bright," said Aunt Leth. "Our visit to Parksides is a most beautiful surprise, quite different from what I expected."



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