Miser Farebrother: A Novel (vol. 2 of 3)
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"I remember everything now," said Ph?be, in a tone of forced calmness. "My father turned my dear friends out of the house!"
"He did turn them away. But to call them your dear friends after what they said! Ph?be, Ph?be, you are too simple and confiding. You should be angry; you should cast them off, as your father has done."
"'After what they said'! What did they say? I heard not a word which they should not have spoken."
"That was their artfulness and wickedness. They have been playing upon you all through. It was while you were unconscious and could not hear what was spoken that your false aunt, Mrs. Lethbridge – "
"Stop!" cried Ph?be; "I will not hear her called so. If you wish to tell me anything that passed after I fainted you can do so, but I will not listen to you if you speak against those I love."
"You will not love them long," said Mrs. Pamflett, composedly, "if you have a daughter's feelings. Your aunt confessed to your father that the reason she had welcomed you at her house was because she looked for a proper return in money from him. Why, my pet – "
"Mrs. Pamflett!" cried Ph?be, interrupting her again.
"You have never used that term of endearment to me before," said Ph?be, resolutely, "and I should prefer you would not do so now."
"You would prefer!" exclaimed Mrs. Pamflett, softly, but the artificial crust of tenderness was beginning to be broken by her true deceitful nature. "But then you are only a child. You may not quite know what is good for you. And so, pet, your aunt confessed the whole plot. Would you be surprised to hear that she has kept an account of everything she has done for you, of every meal you have eaten, of every night you slept at her house, and that she is going to send it in to your father?"
"I should be very much surprised," said Ph?be.
"You will find it true. Oh, the artfulness, the deceitfulness of women! Men are almost as bad – at least some of them are. There are exceptions; Jeremiah is one – the soul of truth and honour – and as for cleverness, there's no saying how clever he is. Said your father to that scheming lawyer, Mr. Cornwall, who has been playing upon your feelings, and who is employed by your aunt to ruin us all – said your father to him, while you were lying on the ground: 'There is my daughter. You have come to ask my consent to her marriage with you. You are free to take her; but, knowing what you are, I will not give you one penny of my money with her!' 'What!' cried the lawyer; 'not one penny?' 'Not one penny,' said your father. 'If you love her, as you say you do, for herself alone, there she is; but neither now nor at any time, before or after my death, shall one penny of my hard-earned money go into your pocket.' 'In that case,' said the fine lawyer, 'I will have nothing to do with her.' Then your father burst into a passion, and I am certain that if he had been a younger man he would have struck Mr.Cornwall to the earth. Jeremiah started forward to do it, but your father laid hold of him, and told him not to soil his fingers by touching such a reptile. It was as much as he could do to prevent my Jeremiah from thrashing the villain who wanted to get you in his toils. Then your father ordered your aunt and her lawyer friend out of the house, and warned them never to show their faces here again."
"You forget," said Ph?be, "my father did that in my hearing."
"And he repeated it afterward. They were glad enough to get away, my pet, and I hope that they will never annoy you again."
"Suppose, Mrs. Pamflett," said Ph?be, "that I were to write to my aunt all you have told me?"
"You are quite welcome to do so, pet. Of course she will deny it, and will invent another story to try and set herself right in your eyes. It is just on the cards, though, that she may brazen it out and admit the truth. It is a dreadful thing when one is exposed as she has been."
"Yes, it is hard to be found out," said Ph?be. "Mrs. Pamflett, I should like to be alone for a little while."
"Very well, pet. I will go; but you have only to call, and I will come immediately. I am more than your friend – I am your faithful servant. I will guard you like a mother. From this day no harm shall come to you."
She turned to go, and standing by the door, said, "Your father wishes to see you, pet."
"I will go to him presently," said Ph?be.
Outside the door Mrs. Pamflett's face underwent a change, and showed itself in its true colours. Her thought was, "Is she trying to hoodwink me that she did not fly into a passion? What has come over her? Let her be careful – let her be careful! I can make life a torture for her."
Ph?be, indeed, was surprised at herself, and wondered how it was that she had had strength to meet Mrs. Pamflett's lies in the way she did. She well knew that they were the basest of calumnies, and she received them as such. Though all the world rose up against her aunt Leth, she would remain that dear woman's champion. And Fred – her own true lover – that Mrs. Pamflett should for a moment expect her to believe the false story she had invented! The fact was Mrs. Pamflett had over-reached herself. Like a great number of less skilful artists, she had laid on the colours too thick. Had she been more delicate she might have had a greater chance of success. And yet that was scarcely likely with a girl like Ph?be, the strength of whose nature appeared to have been, as it were, latent within her until the occurrence of this crisis in her young life. She did not quite realize what it meant to her; but for the present the spirit required to meet an enemy like Mrs. Pamflett had a healthy effect upon her; it had aroused her from despondency; that, and her love for Fred, and her faith in Aunt Leth, had given her strength to listen with outward calmness to Mrs. Pamflett's fabrications. If trouble were before her, she would meet it bravely. Fred would be true to her, and she would be true to him. Aunt and Uncle Leth and her cousins would not forget her – would always love her. Her father and Mrs. Pamflett could not force her into a marriage with a man she abhorred. "Be brave, Ph?be, be brave," she whispered to herself as she walked to her father's room, "for the sake of those who love you truly."
Jeremiah Pamflett was in the miser's room when Ph?be entered. Miser Farebrother looked very ill; his face was white and pinched, his lips were drawn in. Ph?be's heart sank, and a feeling of remorse shot through her as she gazed upon his suffering face. She was his daughter – his only child – and he had a claim upon her love and obedience. Was it not her dear aunt Leth who had said as much? She knew that this plain setting forth of a child's duty to her parents was no false declaration; it was her aunt's belief. Well, she would perform her duty to the uttermost of her strength; but to one thing she was resolved.
"Sit here," said Miser Farebrother. Ph?be took the chair he indicated; it was between him and Jeremiah Pamflett, and as she passed her enemy she drew herself carefully from him. He noted this avoidance, but made no comment upon it. At present his case was in his master's hands. "You are well?" asked Miser Farebrother.
"Not quite well, father," said Ph?be.
"But well enough," he retorted. "You have a long life before you. Look at me. How long do you think I shall live?"
"Many years, I hope, father."
"We shall see whether you do hope it. It must be plain to you that I am ill – seriously ill."
"I am very sorry, father."
"We shall see whether you are sorry. What is a man to believe in? Words? No. Actions speak, not words. False sympathy, lying protestations – what are they worth? Those who use them ought to be trodden in the mud. You hope I shall live many years. We shall see. I have not long to live, I tell you; but you can hasten my death; you can murder me."
"Father!" cried Ph?be, in terror. "Murder you!"
"Murder me. You can do it. If I were to implore you to spare me – to let me live, would you grant my prayer, or would you carry out your wicked designs? We shall see – we shall see. You perceive that I am suffering, and you say you are sorry. Your dead mother knows how far you are speaking the truth; I do not – as yet. It has to be made clear to me. You are my daughter, are you not?"
"What kind of love have you given me? What kind of care have you bestowed upon me? For years I have been groaning and suffering here, and you – what have you been doing? Have you attended to me, have you nursed me, have you shown one spark of a daughter's proper feelings? No, not one – not one. Gadding about, going to theatres, dancing, making light friends, laughing, singing, ministering to your vanities, while I, your father, have lain here, cut to the soul by your coldness and want of decent feeling. If it was not in you, you might have pretended it was, and I should have been deceived. It would have made it no better for you, but it might have been better for me. You know that I have a doctor attending me?"
"Have you ever asked him how I was – have you ever shown, in a single conversation with him, that you have within you those solicitous feelings which a daughter should have for a suffering father? Have you ever shown – " He did not proceed. He lay back, panting, in his chair, and Jeremiah, without looking up, thought: "What an actor he is! Oh, what an actor he is!"
"Father," said Ph?be, in deep distress, "you do me an injustice. It has always been my wish to attend to you, to nurse you, but you would never allow me. 'Let me alone! let me alone!' you said, and have always repulsed me."
"Why? why?" he asked, raising himself in his chair, and bending so excitedly forward that she was frightened, and cried:
"Don't excite yourself, father; you are not strong enough to bear it."
"I know I am not. You know it too. It is not I who am exciting myself – it is you, because you wish to kill me!" She shuddered violently, and covered her face with her hands. "Why, when you have asked me whether you could do anything for me, have I desired you to let me alone? Because I could see plainly that you wished not to be troubled about me; that you were pretending – that you were wholly false in your advances. There are a thousand things a child can do for a parent in my condition which would bring pleasure to him. Have you done one? That I am impatient, querulous, quick-tempered – is not that natural when a man is in anguish day and night? Did you ever give that a thought? do you give it a thought now?"
"Father," said poor Ph?be, feeling acutely the bitter injustice of her father's accusations, and yet not knowing how to combat them without plunging him into deeper excitement, "I will nurse you if you will allow me; I will do everything in my power to restore you to health. Try me, father!"
"You do not intend to leave Parksides, then, without my permission?"
"To leave Parksides without your permission!" she echoed. "No, father!"
"For the few weeks that remain to me you will not leave the house? You will nurse me – you will soothe my last hours?"
"Oh, father, do not speak like that! I will do all you wish."
"Out of your own loving heart?"
"Yes, father, out of my own loving heart!"
"Swear it!" he cried, in a loud, commanding tone, pushing his dead wife's prayer-book to the guileless girl. "Kiss your mother's prayer-book, and prove to me whether you are lying or speaking the truth!"
In an impulse of fervour and self-reproach she kissed the prayer-book. He took it from her hands.
"You are a witness, Jeremiah," he said.
"I am a witness, sir," said Jeremiah.
"You have sworn," said Miser Farebrother to his daughter, "that you will not leave Parksides while I live, unless I drive you forth. That is your oath."
"Yes, father." But she said it with a sinking heart. It seemed to her as if a net were being spread around her, from which it was impossible to escape.
In her bed that night this impression of a forced, inexorable imprisonment became accentuated by a review of what had passed between herself and her father. For what other reason had he made her swear upon her dead mother's prayer-book that she would not leave Parksides without his permission? Could he not have taken her word? Was she to regard all that he had said as of equal value with Mrs. Pamflett's false statements? Were they all leagued against her? and what would be the end of the plot? Could they now compel her to marry Jeremiah Pamflett? No; she would endure a thousand deaths first. But she was imprisoned here in Parksides; she had no longer a will of her own. Her father had turned her only friends from his house, and he and they were the bitterest enemies; he had turned her lover from his house; she was cut off from all she held dear, and was here unprotected, at the mercy of Mrs. Pamflett and her son, and of her father, whose inexplicable behaviour toward her afflicted her with shuddering doubts. Had she been aware of what transpired between her aunt Leth and her father after she had fainted in the earlier part of the day, she would not so readily have fallen into the trap her father had set for her.
When she fell to the ground Aunt Leth and Fred Cornwall started forward with sympathizing eagerness to assist her, but they were motioned sternly back by Miser Farebrother.
"I have ordered you to leave my house," he said. "I can attend to my daughter."
Sadly they turned to the door, but Aunt Leth came swiftly back.
"Listen to me, my dead sister's husband," she said, in a quick, trembling voice. "At my sister's death-bed, in this very room, I promised her to look after her child, my poor niece lying here at our feet, as tenderly as though she were one of my own. I love her as my own child, and I shall redeem my promise to my dead sister. This person" – she pointed to Jeremiah Pamflett – "to whom you say you have promised your daughter's hand, is utterly unworthy of her. She loves an honourable gentleman, and what I can do to bring about her happiness shall be done. If you have a plot against her welfare I will endeavour to circumvent it. My heart and the hearts of my husband and children are ever open to her. Our home is hers; she can come to us at any moment, and we will receive her with joy. In this house there was never for her nor for her dead mother the slightest sign of love."
"My daughter has told you so?" demanded Miser Farebrother.
"She has not told me so," said the indignant woman. "She has always spoken of you with tenderness and gentleness. You know best how you deserved it at her hands. If she cannot find love and protection here, she can find them with me and mine!" She knelt and kissed Ph?be's pale face. "My sweet child! so happy but an hour ago! Come to me if they oppress you here – my child! my daughter!"
"Bundle them out," cried Miser Farebrother, "neck and crop!"
They had no right to stay, and they left the place mournfully.
"Do not be false to Ph?be," said Aunt Leth to Fred.
"No need to say that to me, Aunt Leth," said the young fellow. "Ph?be, and no other woman, shall be my wife."
This encounter it was between Aunt Leth and Miser Farebrother which had caused the miser to extract a binding oath from Ph?be that she would not leave Parksides without his permission.
"How was that done, Jeremiah?" he asked, when his daughter left the room.
"Capitally! capitally, sir!" said Jeremiah. "What an actor you would have made!"
"Perhaps – perhaps," said Miser Farebrother, with a sneer. "I am not half so ill as I look, Jeremiah. Don't reckon too soon upon my death. Excitement like this does me a power of good. They came to trap me, my fine lawyer and tearful sister-in-law; but I have turned the tables upon them. As I will upon every one" – with a keen look at Jeremiah – "who dares to play me false!"
It was fortunate for the miser that his managing clerk did not possess the power of striking a man dead by a glance; if he had, that moment would have been Miser Farebrother's last.