Brownlows (1868)

Mr Brownlow is a promising solicitor working in the small town of Masterton . One day unexpectedly he becomes executor of the estate of a wealthy woman recently deceased, Mrs Thomson, and more than fifty thousand pounds are left in trust to him. This money is intended for Mrs Thomson's runaway daughter, Phoebe Thomson, who was last heard of going abroad with her common soldier husband and has been missing ever since. Mr Brownlow is to keep the money for good if Phoebe Thomson fails to claim the fortune in the next 25 years. He is a conscientious, honest man, and he does not like the idea, but there is not much either he or Mrs Thomson's only known relatives, the Fennells, can do about it. He soon marries Bessie Fennell, and pensions her parents, while he never ceases to search for Phoebe Thomson.

As the 25 years come to an end, we find Mr Brownlow a widower living on a magnificent estate, Brownlows, with his two children, Jack and Sara, who know nothing about Phoebe Thomson or her money. But as the date approaches Mr Brownlow realises that were Phoebe Thomson to turn up now, not only his but his children's prospects would be utterly ruined; and his anxiety increases as two widowed mothers Phoebe Thomson's age settle in the town with their small, humble families.

The lodgers at a property very near his, Mrs Preston and her frail, pretty daughter Pamela, do not look very suspicious to Mr Brownlow, though the women are strangers to the town. His attention is focused on Mrs Powys, whose earnest, hardworking son Mr Brownlow engages as his junior clerk. The family, a widow, her daughter and her son, have recently arrived from Canada, and the young man hints at some lost, powerful relations with whom his father had lost touch, after marrying beneath himself socially. This is how Mrs Powys soon becomes Phoebe Thomson in Mr Brownlow's mind. He therefore encourages his clerk to visit him and his daughter at home, and treats him somewhat as his social equal, in case the “truth” is ever discovered.

In the meantime he learns his son has been seeing Pamela Preston secretly for some time, and his efforts to dissuade him end up in Jack taking the girl as his betrothed. Mrs Preston is resigned, and actually feels happy her daughter will have someone to look after her when she is gone. But Mrs Fennell's old servant Nancy realises Mrs Preston's real identity, which is none other than Phoebe Thomson, and decides to take advantage of the situation and improve her own position by earning the widow's gratitude. Her actions only bring Mrs Preston under severe mental turmoil, as she starts suspecting all kindnesses from the Brownlows as mercenary attempts to deprive Pamela of her fortune. She then becomes obsessed with the money and the Brownlows, and despite her ill health goes to London to research her claims.

On the very last day and hour of the 25 years, there is a banging at the door of Brownlows, and the fragile, almost mad Mrs Preston confronts Mr Brownlow and demands her inheritance. Mr Brownlow himself is so distraught that his thoughts turn to killing Mrs Preston, though the presence of his daughter prevents this. It is not clear that these ugly thoughts would actually have translated into murder, and the next day he feels he must have been temporarily mad. Mrs Preston dies not long after, her poor health having taken a turn for the worse under her strong, misdirected feelings.

Mr Brownlow moves with his daughter back to their more modest family house in Masterton. He decides he will give Pamela back her mother's fortune, and a portion of his own after his decease, making sure his daughter Sara is still provided for. Pamela and Jack marry and reside at Brownlows.

Mr Brownlow finds a further distraction in the revelation that Sara and his clerk Mr Powys have fallen in love. Not much hope is found for their relationship until Mr Powys actually finds his lost relation, an aristocratic grandmother Lady Powys, and learns that due to several deaths he is now the heir to the Powys estate. He rushes to the Brownlows' humbler home in Masterton to propose marriage to Sara.