A CATASTROPHE

Mrs. Mowbray was more restless than her maid, who had been with her for
many years, had ever seen her before. She was not at any time a model of
a tranquil woman, but ever since her arrival in St. Rule’s, her activity
had been incessant, and very disturbing to her household. She was
neither quiet during the day nor did she sleep at night. She was out and
in of the house a hundred times of a morning, and even when within doors
was so continually in motion, that the maids who belonged to the house,
and had been old Mr. Anderson’s servants, held a meeting, and decided
that if things went on like this, they would all “speak” when the
appointed moment for speaking came, and leave at the next term. Mrs.
Mowbray’s own maid, who was specially devoted to her, had a heavier
thought on her mind; for the mistress was so unlike herself, that it
seemed to this good woman that she must be “off her head,” or in a fair
way of becoming so. There was no one to take notice of this alarming
condition of affairs, for what was to be expected from Mr. Frank? He was
a young man: he was taken up with his own concerns. It was not to be
supposed that his mother’s state would call forth any anxiety on his
part, until it went much further than it yet had gone. And there were no
intimate friends who could be appealed to. There was no one to exercise
any control, even if it had been certain that there was occasion for
exercising control. And that had not occurred as yet. But she was so
restless, that she could not keep still anywhere for half-an-hour. She
was constantly on the stairs, going up and down, or in the street,
taking little walks, making little calls, staying only a few minutes.
She could not rest. In the middle of the night, she might be seen up
wandering about the house in her dressing-gown, with a candle in her
hand: though when any one was startled, and awakened by the sound of her
nocturnal wanderings, she was always apologetic, explaining that she had
forgotten something in the drawing-room, or wanted a book.

But on the day when she had spoken to Frank, as already recorded, her
restlessness was more acute than ever. She asked him each time he came
in, whether he had “taken any steps;” though what step the poor boy
could have taken, he did not know, nor did she, except that one step of
consulting the minister, which was simple enough, but which, as has been
seen, was rendered difficult to Frank on the other side. The next day,
that morning on which Frank lost all his time on the East Sands, with
Johnny Wemyss, and his new beast, the poor lady could not contain
herself at all. She sat down at the window for a minute, and gazed out
as if she were expecting some one; then she jumped up, and went over all
the rooms up-stairs, looking for something, she said, which she could
not find. She could not keep still. The other servants began to compare
opinions and to agree with the lady’s maid. At last before twelve
o’clock Mrs. Mowbray put on her “things,” for the third or fourth time,
and sallied forth, not dressed with her usual elaborate nicety, but with
a shawl too heavy for the warm day, and a bonnet which was by no means
her best bonnet. Perhaps there is no greater difference between these
times and ours, than the fact of the bonnet and shawl, as opposed to the
easier hat and jacket, which can be put on so quickly. Mrs. Mowbray
generally took a long time over the tying of her bonnet strings, which
indeed was a work of art. But in the hasty irregularity of that morning
she could not be troubled about the bonnet strings, but tied them
anyhow, not able to give her attention to the bows. It may easily be
seen what an agitation there must have been in her bosom, when she
neglected so important a point in her toilet. And her shawl was not
placed carefully round her shoulders, in what was supposed to be the
elegant way, but fastened about her neck like the shawl of any farmer’s
wife. Nothing but some very great disturbance of mind could account for
an outward appearance so incomplete.

“She’s going to see the minister,” said Hunter, her woman, to Janet, the
cook. Hunter had been unable to confine her trouble altogether to her
own breast. She did not indeed say what she feared, but she had confided
her anxiety about her mistress’s health in general to Janet, who was of
a discreet age, and knew something of life.

“Weel, aweel,” said Janet, soothingly, “she can never do better than
speak to the minister. He will soothe down her speerits, if onybody can;
but that’s not the shortest gait to the minister’s house.”

They stood together at the window, and watched her go up the street, the
morning sunshine throwing a shadow before her. At the other end of the
High Street, Johnny Wemyss had almost reached his own door, with ever a
new crowd following at his heels, demanding to see the new beast. And
Frank had started with his foursome in high spirits and hope, with the
remembrance of Elsie’s smile warm around him, like internal sunshine,
and the consciousness of an excellent drive over the burn, to add to his
exhilaration. Elsie had gone home, and was seated in the drawing-room,
at the old piano “practising,” as all the household was aware: it was
the only practicable time for that exercise, when it least disturbed the
tranquillity of papa, who, it was generally understood, did not begin to
work till twelve o’clock. And Mrs. Buchanan was busy up-stairs in a
review of the family linen, the napery being almost always in need of
repair. Therefore the coast was perfectly clear, and Mrs. Mowbray,
reluctantly admitted by the maid, who knew her visits were not
over-welcome, ran up the stairs waving her hand to Betty, who would fain
have gone before her to fulfil the requirements of decorum, and because
she had received “a hearing” on the subject from her mistress. “It is
very ill-bred to let a visitor in, and not let me or the minister know
who’s coming. It is my desire you should always go up-stairs before
them, and open the door.” “But how could I,” Betty explained afterwards,
“when she just ran past me? I couldna put forth my hand, and pull her
down the stairs.”

Mrs. Mowbray had been walking very fast, and she ran up-stairs to the
minister’s study, which she knew so well, as rapidly and as softly as
Elsie could have done it. In consequence, when she opened the door, and
asked, breathless, “May I come in?” her words were scarcely audible in
the panting of her heart. She had to sit down, using a sort of pantomime
to excuse herself for nearly five minutes before she could speak.

“Oh, Mr. Buchanan! I have been so anxious to see you! I have run nearly
all the way.”

The minister pushed away the newspaper, which he had been caught
reading. It was the _Courant_ day, when all the bottled-up news of the
week came to St. Rule’s. He sighed to be obliged to give it up in the
middle of his reading, and also because being found in no more serious
occupation, he could not pretend to be very busy, even if he had wished
to do so.

“I hope it is nothing very urgent,” he said.

“Yes, it is urgent, very urgent! I thought Frank would have seen you
yesterday. I thought perhaps you would have paid more attention to him,
than you do to me.”

“My dear Mrs. Mowbray! I hope you have not found me deficient in–in
interest or in attention,” the minister said.

He had still kept hold of the _Courant_ by one corner. Now he threw it
away in a sort of despair. The same old story, he said to himself
grievously, with a sigh that came from the bottom of his heart.

“Do you know,” said the visitor, clasping her hands and resting them on
his table, “that Frank’s twenty-fifth birthday is on the fifth of next
month?”

She looked at him as she had never done before. Her eyes might have been
anxious on previous occasions, but they were also full of other things:
they had light glances aside, a desire to please and charm, always the
consciousness of an effort to secure not only attention, but even
admiration, a consciousness of herself, of her fine manners, and
elaborate dress, finer than anything else in St. Rule’s. Now there was
nothing of all this about her. Her eyes seemed deepened in their
sockets, as if a dozen years had passed over her since she last looked
thus at the minister. And she asked him that question as if the date of
her son’s birthday was the most tragic of facts, a date which she
anticipated with nothing less than despair.

“Is it really?” said the perplexed minister. “No, indeed, I did not
know.”

“And you don’t seem to care either,” she cried, “you don’t care!”

Mr. Buchanan looked at her with a suspicious glance, as if presaging
some further assault upon his peace. But he said:

“I am very glad my young friend has come to such a pleasant age.
Everything has gone well with him hitherto, and he has come creditably
through what may be called the most perilous portion of his youth. He
has now a little experience, and power of discrimination, and I see no
reason to fear but that things will go as well with him in the future,
as they seem—-”

“Oh,” cried Mrs. Mowbray, raising her clasped hands with a gesture of
despair, “is that all you have got to say, just what any old woman might
say! And what about me, Mr. Buchanan, what about me?”

“You!” he cried, rather harshly, for to be called an old woman is enough
to upset the patience of any man. “I don’t know what there is to think
of about you, except the satisfaction you must have in seeing Frank—-”

She stamped her foot upon the floor; her eyes, which looked so hollow
and tragic, flamed up for a moment in wrath.

“Oh, Frank, Frank! as if it were only Frank!” She paused a moment, and
then began again drawing a long breath. “I came to you in my despair. If
you can help me, I know not, or if any one can help me. It is that, or
the pierhead, or the Spindle rock, where a poor creature might slip in,
and it would be thought an accident, and she would never be heard of
more.”

“Mrs. Mowbray! For God’s sake, what do you mean?”

“Ah, you ask me what I mean now? When I speak of the rocks and the sea,
then you begin to think. That is what must come, I know that is what
must come, unless,” she said, “unless”–holding out her hands still
convulsively clasped to him, “you can think of something. Oh, Mr.
Buchanan, if you can think of something, if you can make it up with that
money, if you can show me how I am to get it, how I can make it up! Oh,
will you save me, will you save me!” she cried, stumbling down upon her
knees on the other side of his table, holding up her hands, fixing her
strained eyes upon his face.

“Mrs. Mowbray!” he cried, springing up from his chair, “what is this?
rise up for Heaven’s sake, do not go on your knees to me. I will do
anything for you, anything I can do, surely you understand that–without
this—-”

“Oh, let me stay where I am! It is like asking it from God. You’re
God’s, minister, and I’m a poor creature, a poor nervous weak woman. I
never meant to do any harm. It was chiefly for my boy, that he might
have everything nice, everything that he wanted like a gentleman. Oh,
Mr. Buchanan! you may think I spent too much on my dress. So I did. I
have been senseless and wicked all round, but I never did more than
other women did. And I had no expenses besides. I never was extravagant,
nor played cards, nor anything. And that was for Frank, too, that he
might not be ashamed of his mother. Mr. Buchanan!”

“Rise up,” he said, desperately, “for goodness’ sake, don’t make us both
ridiculous. Sit down, and whatever it is, let us talk it over quietly.
Oh, yes, yes, I am very sorry for you. I am shocked and distressed
beyond words. Sit down rationally, for God’s sake, and tell me what it
is. It is a matter, of course,” he cried, sharply, with some impatience,
“that whatever I can do, I will do for you. There can be no need to
implore me like this! of course I will do everything I can–of course.
Mrs. Mowbray, sit down, for the love of heaven, and let me know what it
is.”

She had risen painfully to her feet while he was speaking. Going down on
your knees may be a picturesque thing, but getting up from them,
especially in petticoats, and in a large shawl, is not a graceful
operation at all, and this, notwithstanding her despair, poor Mrs.
Mowbray was vaguely conscious of. She stumbled to her feet, her skirts
tripping her up, the corners of her shawl getting in her way. The poor
woman had begun to cry. It was wonderful that she had been able to
restrain herself so long; but she was old enough to be aware that a
woman’s tears are just as often exasperating as pathetic to a man, and
had heroically restrained the impulse. But when she fell on her knees,
she lost her self-control. That was begging the question altogether. She
had given up her position as a tragic and dignified appellant. She was
nothing but a poor suppliant now, at anybody’s mercy, quite broken down,
and overmastered by her trouble. It did not matter to her any longer
what anyone thought. The state of mind in which she had dared to tell
the minister that he spoke like an old woman, was gone from her
completely. He was like God, he could save her, if he would; she could
not tell how, there was no reason in her hope, but if he only would,
somehow he could, save her–that was all her thought.

“Now, tell me exactly how it is,” she heard him saying, confusedly,
through the violent beating of her heart.

But what unfortunate, in her position, ever could tell exactly how such
a thing was? She told him a long, broken, confused story, full of
apology, and explanation, insisting chiefly upon the absence of any ill
meaning on her part, or ill intention, and the fatality which had caught
her, and compelled her actions, so often against her will. She had been
led into this and that, it had been pressed upon her–even now she did
not see how she could have escaped. And it was all for Frank’s sake:
every step she had taken was for Frank’s sake, that he might want for
nothing, that he might have everything the others had, and feel that
everything about him–his home, his mother, his society–were such as a
gentleman ought to have.

“This long minority,” Mrs. Mowbray said, through her tears, “oh, what a
mistake it is; instead of saving his money, it has been the destruction
of his money. I thought always it was so hard upon him, that I was
forced to spend more and more to make it up to him. I spent everything
of my own first. Oh, Mr. Buchanan! you must not think I spared anything
of my own–that went first. I sold out and sold out, till there was
nothing left; and then what could I do but get into debt? And here I am,
and I have not a penny, and all these dreadful men pressing and
pressing! And everything will be exposed to Frank, all exposed to him on
the fifth of next month. Oh, Mr. Buchanan, save me, save me. My boy will
despise me. He will never trust me again. He will say it is all my
fault! So it is all my fault. Oh, I do not attempt to deny it, Mr.
Buchanan: but it was all for him. And then there was another thing that
deceived me. I always trusted in you. I felt sure that at the end, when
you found it was really so serious, you would step in, and compel all
these people to pay up, and all my little debts would not matter so much
at the last.”

Mr. Buchanan had forgotten the personal reference in all this to
himself. It did not occur to him that the money which rankled so at his
own heart, and which had already cost him so much, much more than its
value, was the thing upon which she depended, from which she had
expected salvation. What was it she expected? thousands, he supposed,
instead of fifties, a large sum sufficient to re-establish her fortunes.
It was with a kind of impatient disdain that he spoke.

“Are these really little debts you are telling me of? Could a hundred
pounds or two clear them off, would that be of real use?”

“Oh, a hundred pounds!” she cried, with a shriek. “Mr. Buchanan, a
hundred pence would, of course, be of use, for I have no money at all,
and a hundred is a nice little bit of money, and I could stop several
mouths with it: but to clear them off! Oh no, no, alas, alas! It is
clear that you never lived in London. A hundred pounds would be but a
drop in the ocean. But when it is thousands, Mr. Buchanan, which is more
like facts–thousands, I am sure, which you know of, which you could
recover for Frank!”

“Mrs. Mowbray, I don’t know what can have deceived you to this point. It
is absolute folly: all that Mr. Anderson lent to people at St. Rule’s
was never above a few hundred pounds. I know of nothing more. There is
nothing more. There was one of three hundred–nothing more. Be composed,
be composed and listen to me. Mrs. Mowbray!”

But she neither listened nor heard him, her excitement had reached to a
point beyond which flesh and blood overmastered by wild anxiety and
disappointment could not go.

“It can’t be true,” she shrieked out. “It can’t be true, it mustn’t be
true.” And then, with a shriek that rang through the house, throwing out
her arms, she fell like a mass of ruins on the floor.

Mrs. Buchanan was busy with her napery at some distance from the study.
She had heard the visitor come in, and had concluded within herself that
her poor husband would have an ill time of it with that woman. “But
there’s something more on her mind than that pickle siller,” the
minister’s wife had said to herself, shaking her head over the darns in
her napery. She had long been a student of the troubled faces that came
to the minister for advice or consolation, and, having only that
evidence to go upon, had formed many a conclusion that turned out true
enough, sometimes more true than those which, with a more extended
knowledge, from the very lips of the penitents, had been formed by the
minister himself: for the face, as Mrs. Buchanan held, could not make
excuses, or explain things away, but just showed what was. She was
pondering over this case, half-sorry and, perhaps, half-amused that her
husband should have this tangled skein to wind, which he never should
have meddled with, so that it was partly his own fault–when the sound
of those shrieks made her start. They were far too loud and too terrible
to ignore. Mrs. Buchanan threw down the linen she was darning, seized a
bottle of water from the table, and flew to her husband’s room. Already
there were two maids on the stairs hurrying towards the scene of the
commotion, to one of whom she gave a quick order, sending the other
away.

“Thank God that you’ve come,” said Mr. Buchanan, who was feebly
endeavouring to drag the unfortunate woman to her feet again.

“Oh, go away, go away, Claude, you’re of no use here. Send in the doctor
if you see him, he will be more use than you.”

“I’ll do that,” cried the minister, relieved. He was too thankful to
resign the patient into hands more skilful than his own.