Of space within there was plenty, though so much had been sacrificed to the hall and staircase; and this was apparently the cause of the modern additions, as the original sitting-rooms, wainscotted and double-doored, were rather small for family requirements. One of these, once the dining-room, became my father's study, where he read and wrote, saw his tenants, and by and by acted as Justice of the Peace. The opposite one, towards the garden, was termed the book- room. Here Martyn was to do his lessons, and Emily and I carry on our studies, and do what she called keeping up her accomplishments. My couch and appurtenances abode there, and it was to be my retreat from company,—or on occasion could be made a supplementary drawing- room, as its fittings showed it had been the parlour. It communicated with another chamber, which became my own—sparing the difficulties that stairs always presented; and beyond lay, niched under the grand staircase, a tiny light closet, a passage-room, where my mother put a bed for a man-servant, not liking to leave me entirely alone on the ground floor. It led to a passage to the garden door, also to my mother's den, dedicated to housewifely cares and stores, and ended at the back stairs, descending to the servants' region. This was very old, handsomely vaulted with stone, and, owing to the fall of the ground, had ample space for light on the north side,—where, beyond the drive, the descent was so rapid as to afford Martyn infinite delight in rolling down, to the horror of all beholders and the detriment of his white duck trowsers.
I don't know much about the upper story, so I spare you that. Emily had a hankering for one of the pretty old mullioned-windowed rooms— the mullion chambers, as she named them; but Griff pounced on them at once, the inner for his repose, the outer for his guns and his studies—not smoking, for young men were never permitted to smoke within doors, nor indeed in any home society. The choice of the son and heir was undisputed, and he proceeded to settle his possessions in his new domains, where they made an imposing appearance.
'As louder and louder, drawing near, The gnawing of their teeth he could hear.'
'What a ridiculous old fellow that Chapman is,' said Griff, coming in from a conference with the gaunt old man who acted as keeper to our not very extensive preserves. 'I told him to get some gins for the rats in my rooms, and he shook his absurd head like any mandarin, and said, "There baint no trap as will rid you of them kind of varmint, sir."'
'Of course,' my father said, 'rats are part of the entail of an old house. You may reckon on them.'
'Those rooms of yours are the very place for them,' added my mother. 'I only hope they will not infest the rest of the house.'
To which Griff rejoined that they perpetrated the most extraordinary noises he had ever heard from rats, and told Emily she might be thankful to him for taking those rooms, for she would have been frightened out of her little wits. He meant, he said, to get a little terrier, and have a thorough good rat hunt, at which Martyn capered about in irrepressible ecstasy.
This, however, was deferred by the unwillingness of old Chapman, of whom even Griff was somewhat in awe. His fame as a sportsman had to be made, and he had had only such practice as could be attained by shooting at a mark ever since he had been aware of his coming greatness. So he was desirous of conciliating Chapman, and not getting laughed at as the London young gentleman who could not hit a hay-stack. My father, who had been used to carrying a gun in his younger days, was much amused, in his quiet way, at seeing Griff watch Chapman off on his rounds, and then betake himself to the locality most remote from the keeper's ears to practise on the rook or crow. Martyn always ran after him, having solemnly promised not to touch the gun, and to keep behind. He was too good-natured to send the little fellow back, though he often tried to elude the pursuit, not wishing for a witness to his attempts; and he never invited Clarence, who had had some experience of curious game but never mentioned it.
Clarence devoted himself to Emily and me, tugging my garden-chair along all the paths where it would go without too much jolting, and when I had had enough, exploring those hanging woods, either with her or on his own account. They used to come home with their hands full of flowers, and this resulted in a vehement attack of botany,— a taste that has lasted all our lives, together with the hortus siccus to which we still make additions, though there has been a revolution there as well as everywhere else, and the Linnaean system we learnt so eagerly from Martin's Letters is altogether exploded and antiquated. Still, my sister refuses to own the scientific merits of the natural system, and can point to school-bred and lectured young ladies who have no notion how to discover the name or nature of a live plant.
On the Friday after our arrival the noises had been so fearful that Griff had been exasperated into going off across the hills, accompanied by his constant shadow, Martyn, in search of the professional ratcatcher of the neighbourhood, in spite of Chapman's warning—that Tom Petty was the biggest rascal in the neighbourhood, and a regular out and out poacher; and as to the noises—he couldn't 'tackle the like of they.' After revelling in the beauty of the beechwoods as long as was good for me or for Clarence, I was left in the garden to sketch the ruin, while my two companions started on one of their exploring expeditions.
It was getting late enough to think of going to prepare for the six o'clock dinner when Emily came forth alone from the path between the trees, announcing—'An adventure, Edward! We have had such an adventure.'
'Gone for the doctor! Oh, no; Griff hasn't shot anybody. He is gone for the ratcatcher, you know. It is a poor little herdboy, who tumbled out of a tree; and oh! such a sweet, beautiful, young lady— just like a book!'
When Emily became less incoherent, it appeared that on coming out on the bit of common above the wood, as she and Clarence were halting on the brow of the hill to admire the view, they heard a call for help, and hurrying down in the direction whence it proceeded they saw a stunted ash-tree, beneath which were a young lady and a little child bending over a village lad who lay beneath moaning piteously. The girl, whom Emily described as the most beautiful creature she ever saw, explained that the boy, who had been herding the cattle scattered around, had been climbing the tree, a limb of which had broken with him. She had seen the fall from a distance, and hurried up; but she hardly knew what to do, for her little sister was too young to be sent in quest of assistance. Clarence thought one leg seriously injured, and as the young lady seemed to know the boy, offered to carry him home. School officers were yet in the future; children were set to work almost as soon as they could walk, and this little fellow was so light and thin as to shock Clarence when he had been taken up on his back, for he weighed quite a trifle. The young lady showed the way to a wretched little cottage, where a bigger girl had just come in with a sheaf of corn freshly gleaned poised on her head. They sent her to fetch her mother, and Clarence undertook to go for a doctor, but to the surprise and horror of Emily, there was a demur. Something was said of old Molly and her 'ile' and 'yarbs,' or perhaps Madam could step round. When Clarence, on this being translated to him, pronounced the case beyond such treatment, it was explained outside the door that this was a terribly poor family, and the doctor would not come to parish patients for an indefinite time after his summons, besides which, he lived at Wattlesea. 'Indeed mamma does almost all the doctoring with her medicine chest,' said the girl.
On which Clarence declared that he would let the doctor know that he himself would be responsible for the cost of the attendance, and set off for Wattlesea, a kind of town village in the flat below. He could not get back till dinner was half over, and came in alarmed and apologetic; but he had nothing worse to encounter than Griff's unmerciful banter (or, as you would call it, chaff) about his knight errantry, and Emily's lovely heroine in the sweetest of cottage bonnets.
Griff could be slightly tyrannous in his merry mockery, and when he found that on the ensuing day Clarence proposed to go and inquire after the patient, he made such wicked fun of the expectations the pair entertained of hearing the sweet cottage bonnet reading a tract in a silvery voice through the hovel window, that he fairly teased and shamed Clarence out of starting till the renowned Tom Petty arrived and absorbed all the three brothers, and even their father, in delights as mysterious to me as to Emily. How she shrieked when Martyn rushed triumphantly into the room where we were arranging books with the huge patriarch of all the rats dangling by his tail! Three hopeful families were destroyed; rooms, vaults, and cellars examined and cleared; and Petty declared the race to be exterminated, picturesque ruffian that he was, in his shapeless hat, rusty velveteen, long leggings, a live ferret in his pocket, and festoons of dead rats over his shoulder.
Chapman, who regarded him much as the ferret did the rat, declared that the rabbits and hares would suffer from letting 'that there chap' show his face here on any plea; and, moreover, gave a grunt very like a scoff; at the idea of slumbers in the mullion rooms (as they were called) being secured by his good offices.
And Chapman was right. The unaccountable noises broke out again— screaming, wailing, sobbing—sounds scarcely within the power of cat or rat, but possibly the effect of the wind in the old building. At any rate, Griff could not stand them, and declared that sleep was impossible when the wind was in that quarter, so that he must shift his bedroom elsewhere, though he still wished to retain the outer apartment, which he had taken pleasure in adorning with his special possessions. My mother would scarcely have tolerated such fancies in any one else, but Griff had his privileges.
CHAPTER X—OUR TUNEFUL CHOIR
'The church has been whitewashed, but right long ago, As the cracks and the dinginess amply doth show; About the same time that a strange petrifaction Confined the incumbent to mere Sunday action. So many abuses in this place are rife, The only church things giving token of life Are the singing within and the nettles without - Both equally rampant without any doubt.'
F. R. HAVERGAL.
All Griff's teasing could not diminish—nay, rather increased— Emily's excitement in the hope of seeing and identifying the sweet cottage bonnet at church on Sunday. The distance we had to go was nearly two miles, and my mother and I drove thither in a donkey chair, which had been hunted up in London for that purpose because the 'pheeaton' (as the servants insisted on calling it) was too high for me. My father had an old-fashioned feeling about the Fourth Commandment, which made him scrupulous as to using any animal on Sunday; and even when, in bad weather, or for visitors, the larger carriage was used, he always walked. He was really angry with Griff that morning for mischievously maintaining that it was a greater breach of the commandment to work an ass than a horse.
It was a pretty drive on a road slanting gradually through the brushwood that clothed the steep face of the hillside, and passing farms and meadows full of cattle—all things quieter and stiller than ever in their Sunday repose. We knew that the living was in Winslow patronage, but that it was in the hands of one of the Selby connection, who held it, together with it is not safe to say how many benefices, and found it necessary for his health to reside at Bath. The vicarage had long since been turned into a farmhouse, and the curate lived at Wattlesea. All this we knew, but we had not realised that he was likewise assistant curate there, and only favoured Earlscombe with alternate morning and evening services on Sundays.
Still less were we prepared for the interior of the church. It had a picturesque square tower covered with ivy, and a general air of fitness for a sketch; indeed, the photograph of it in its present beautified state will not stand a comparison with our drawings of it, in those days of dilapidation in the middle of the untidy churchyard, with little boys astride on the sloping, sunken lichen- grown headstones, mullein spikes and burdock leaves, more graceful than the trim borders and zinc crosses which are pleasanter to the mental eye.
The London church we had left would be a fearful shock to the present generation, but we were accustomed to decency, order, and reverence; and it was no wonder that my father was walking about the churchyard, muttering that he never saw such a place, while my brothers were full of amusement. Their spruce looks in their tall hats, bright ties, dark coats, and white trowsers strapped tight under their boots, looked incongruous with the rest of the congregation, the most distinguished members of which were farmers in drab coats with huge mother-of-pearl buttons, and long gaiters buttoned up to their knees and strapped up to their gay waistcoats over their white corduroys. Their wives and daughters were in enormous bonnets, fluttering with ribbons; but then what my mother and Emily wore were no trifles. The rest of the congregation were— the male part of it—in white or gray smock-frocks, the elderly women in black bonnets, the younger in straw; but we had not long to make our observations, for Chapman took possession of us. He was parish clerk, and was in great glory in his mourning coat and hat, and his object was to marshal us all into our pew before he had to attend upon the clergyman; and of course I was glad enough to get as soon as possible out of sight of all the eyes not yet accustomed to my figure.
And hidden enough I was when we had been introduced through the little north chancel door into a black-curtained, black-cushioned, black-lined pew, well carpeted, with a table in the midst, and a stove, whose pipe made its exit through the floriated tracery of the window overhead. The chancel arch was to the west of us, blocked up by a wooden parcel-gilt erection, and to the east a decorated window that would have been very handsome if two side-lights had not been obscured by the two Tables of the Law, with the royal arms on the top of the first table, and over the other our own, with the Fordyce in a scutcheon of pretence; for, as an inscription recorded, they had been erected by Margaret, daughter of Christopher Fordyce, Esquire, of Chantry House, and relict of Sir James John Winslow, Kt., sergeant-at-law, A.D. 1700—the last date, I verily believe, at which anything had been done to the church. And on the wall, stopping up the southern chancel window, was a huge marble slab, supported by angels blowing trumpets, with a very long inscription about the Fordyce family, ending with this same Margaret, who had married the Winslow, lost two or three infants, and died on 1st January 1708, three years later than her husband.
Thus far I could see; but Griff was standing lifting the curtain, and showing by the working of his shoulders his amazement and diversion, so that only the daggers in my mother's eyes kept Martyn from springing up after him. What he beheld was an altar draped in black like a coffin, and on the step up to the rail, boys and girls eating apples and performing antics to beguile the waiting time, while a row of white-smocked old men occupied the bench opposite to our seat, conversing loud enough for us to hear them.
My father and Clarence came in; the bells stopped; there was a sound of steps, and in the fabric in front of us there emerged a grizzled head and the back of a very dirty surplice besprinkled with iron moulds, while Chapman's back appeared above our curtain, his desk (full of dilapidated prayer-books) being wedged in between us and the reading-desk.
The duet that then took place between him and the curate must have been heard to be credible, especially as, being so close behind the old man, we could not fail to be aware of all the remarkable shots at long words which he bawled out at the top of his voice, and I refrain from recording, lest they should haunt others as they have done by me all my life. Now and then Chapman caught up a long switch and dashed out at some obstreperous child to give an audible whack; and towards the close of the litany he stumped out—we heard his tramp the whole length of the church, and by and by his voice issued from an unknown height, proclaiming—'Let us sing to the praise and glory in an anthem taken from the 42d chapter of Genesis.'
There was an outburst of bassoon, clarionet, and fiddle, and the performance that followed was the most marvellous we had ever heard, especially when the big butcher—fiddling all the time—declared in a mighty solo, 'I am Jo—Jo—Jo—Joseph!' and having reiterated this information four or five times, inquired with equal pertinacity, 'Doth—doth my fa-a-u-ther yet live?' Poor Emily was fairly 'convulsed;' she stuffed her handkerchief into her mouth, and grew so crimson that my mother was quite frightened, and very near putting her out at the little door of excommunication. To our last hour we shall never forget the shock of that first anthem.
The Commandments were read from the desk, Chapman's solitary response coming from the gallery; and while the second singing—four verses from Tate and Brady—was going on, we beheld the surplice stripped off,—like the slough of a May-fly, as Griff said,—when a rusty black gown was revealed, in which the curate ascended the pulpit and was lost to our view before the concluding verse of the psalm, which we had reason to believe was selected in compliment to us, as well as to Earlscombe, -
'My lot is fall'n in that blest land Where God is truly know, He fills my cup with liberal hand; 'Tis He—'tis He—'tis He—supports my throne.'
We had great reason to doubt how far the second line could justly be applied to the parish! but there was no judging of the sermon, for only detached sentences reached us in a sort of mumble. Griff afterwards declared churchgoing to be as good as a comedy, and we all had to learn to avoid meeting each other's eyes, whatever we might hear. When the scuffle and tramp of the departing congregation had ceased, we came forth from our sable box, and beheld the remnants of a once handsome church, mauled in every possible way, green stains on the walls, windows bricked up, and a huge singing gallery. Good bits of carved stall work were nailed anyhow into the pews; the floor was uneven; no font was visible; there was a mouldy uncared-for look about everything. The curate in riding-boots came out of the vestry,—a pale, weary-looking man, painfully meek and civil, with gray hair sleeked round his face. He 'louted low,' and seemed hardly to venture on taking the hand my father held out to him. There was some attempt to enter into conversation with him, but he begged to be excused, for he had to hurry back to Wattlesea to a funeral. Poor man! he was as great a pluralist as his vicar, for he kept a boys' school, partially day, partially boarding, and his eyes looked hungrily at Martyn.
If the 'sweet cottage bonnet' had been at church there would have been little chance of discovering her, but we found that we were the only 'quality,' as Chapman called it, or things might not have been so bad. Old James Winslow had been a mere fox-hunting squire till he became a valetudinarian; nor had he ever cared for the church or for the poor, so that the village was in a frightful state of neglect. There was a dissenting chapel, old enough to be overgrown with ivy and not too hideous, erected by the Nonconformists in the reign of the Great Deliverer, but this partook of the general decadence of the parish, and, as we found, the chapel's principal use was to serve as an excuse for not going to church.
My father always went to church twice, so he and Clarence walked to Wattlesea, where appearances were more respectable; but they heard the same sermon over again, and, as my father drily remarked, it was not a composition that would bear repetition.
He was much distressed at the state of things, and intended to write to the incumbent, though, as he said, whatever was done would end by being at his own expense, and the move and other calls left him so little in hand that he sighed over the difficulties, and declared that he was better off in London, except for the honour of the thing. Perhaps my mother was of the same opinion after a dreary afternoon, when Griff and Martyn had been wandering about aimlessly, and were at length betrayed by the barking of a little terrier, purchased the day before from Tom Petty, besieging the stable cat, who stood with swollen tail, glaring eyes, and thunderous growls, on the top of the tallest pillar of the ruins. Emily nearly cried at their cruelty. Martyn was called off by my mother, and set down, half sulky, half ashamed, to Henry and his Bearer; and Griff, vowing that he believed it was that brute who made the row at night, and that she ought to be exterminated, strolled off to converse with Chapman, who was a quaint compound of clerk and keeper—in the one capacity upholding his late master, in the other bemoaning Mr. Mears' unpunctualities, specially as regarded weddings and funerals; one 'corp' having been kept waiting till a messenger had been sent to Wattlesea, who finding both clergy out for the day, had had to go to Hillside, 'where they was always ready, though the old Squire would have been mad with him if he'd a-guessed one of they Fordys had ever set foot in the parish.'
The only school in the place was close to the meeting-house, 'a very dame's school indeed,' as Emily described it after a peep on Monday. Dame Dearlove, the old woman who presided, was a picture of Shenstone's schoolmistress,—black bonnet, horn spectacles, fearful birch rod, three-cornered buff 'kerchief, checked apron and all, but on meddling with her, she proved a very dragon, the antipodes of her name. Tattered copies of the Universal Spelling-Book served her aristocracy, ragged Testaments the general herd, whence all appeared to be shouting aloud at once. She looked sour as verjuice when my mother and Emily entered, and gave them to understand that 'she wasn't used to no strangers in her school, and didn't want 'em.' We found that in Chapman's opinion she 'didn't larn 'em nothing.' She had succeeded her aunt, who had taught him to read 'right off,' but 'her baint to be compared with she.' And now the farmers' children, and the little aristocracy, including his own grand-children,—all indeed who, in his phrase, 'cared for eddication,'—went to Wattlesea.
CHAPTER XI—'THEY FORDYS.'
'Of honourable reckoning are you both, And pity 'tis, you lived at odds so long.'
My father had a good deal of business in hand, and was glad of Clarence's help in writing and accounts,—a great pleasure, though it prevented his being Griff's companion in his exploring and essays at shooting. He had time, however, to make an expedition with me in the donkey chair to inquire after the herdboy, Amos Bell, and carry him some kitchen physic. To our horror we found him quite alone in the wretched cottage, while everybody was out harvesting; but he did not seem to pity himself, or think it otherwise than quite natural, as he lay on a little bed in the corner, disabled by what Clarence thought a dislocation. Miss Ellen had brought him a pudding, and little Miss Anne a picture-book.
He was not so dense and shy as the children of the hamlet near us, and Emily extracted from him that Miss Ellen was 'Our passon's young lady.'
'Mr. Mears'!' she exclaimed.
'No: ourn be Passon Fordy.'
It turned out that this place was not in Earlscombe at all, but in Hillside, a different parish; and the boy, Amos, further communicated that there was old Passon Fordy, and Passon Frank, and Madam, what was Mr. Frank's lady. Yes, he could read, he could; he went to Sunday School, and was in Miss Ellen's class; he had been to school worky days, only father was dead, and Farmer Hartop gave him a job.
It was plain that Hillside was under a very different rule from Earlscombe; and Emily was delighted to have discovered that the sweet cottage bonnet's owner was called Ellen, which just then was the pet Christian name of romance, in honour of the Lady of the Lake.
In the midst of her raptures, however, just as we were about to turn in at our own gate into the wood, we heard horses' hoofs, and then came, careering by on ponies, a very pretty girl and a youth of about the same age. Clarence's hand rose to his hat, and he made his eager bow; but the young lady did not vouchsafe the slightest acknowledgment, turned her head away, and urged her pony to speed.
Emily broke out with an angry disappointed exclamation. Clarence's face was scarlet, and he said low and hoarsely, 'That's Lester. He was in the Argus at Portsmouth two years ago;'—and then, as our little sister continued her indignant exclamations, he added, 'Hush! Don't on any account say a word about it. I had better get back to my work. I am only doing you harm by staying here.'
At which Emily shed tears, and together we persuaded him not to curtail his holiday, which, indeed, he could not have done without assigning the reason to the elders, and this was out of the question. Nor did he venture to hang back when, as our service was to be on Sunday afternoon, my father proposed to walk to Hillside Church in the morning. They came back well pleased. There was care and decency throughout. The psalms were sung to a 'grinder organ'— which was an advanced state of things in those days—and very nicely. Parson Frank read well and impressively, and the old parson, a fine venerable man, had preached an excellent sermon— really admirable, as my father repeated. Our party had been scarcely in time, and had been disposed of in seats close to the door, where Clarence was quite out of sight of the disdainful young lady and her squire, of whom Emily begged to hear no more.
She looked askance at the cards left on the hall table the next day- -'The Rev. Christopher Fordyce,' and 'The Rev. F. C. Fordyce,' also 'Mrs. F. C. Fordyce, Hillside Rectory.'
We had found out that Hillside was a family living, and that there was much activity there on the part of the father and son—rector and curate; and that the other clerical folk, ladies especially, who called on us, spoke of Mrs. F. C. Fordyce with a certain tone, as if they were afraid of her, as Sir Horace Lester's sister,—very superior, very active, very strict in her notions,—as if these were so many defects. They were an offshoot of the old Fordyces of Chantry House, but so far back that all recollection of kindred or connection must have worn out. Their property—all in beautiful order—marched with ours, and Chapman was very particular about the boundaries. 'Old master he wouldn't have a bird picked up if it fell over on they Fordys' ground—not he! He couldn't abide passons, couldn't the old Squire—not Miss Hannah More, and all they Cheddar lot, and they Fordys least of all. My son's wife, she was for sending her little maid to Hillside to Madam Fordys' school, but, bless your heart, 'twould have been as much as my place was worth if master had known it.'
The visit was not returned till after Clarence had gone back to his London work. Sore as was the loss of him from my daily life, I could see that the new world and fresh acquaintances were a trial to him, and especially since the encounter with young Lester had driven him back into his shell, so that he would be better where he was already known and had nothing new to overcome. Emily, though not yet sixteen, was emancipated from schoolroom habits, and the dear girl was my devoted slave to an extent that perhaps I abused.
Not being 'come out,' she was left at home on the day when we set out on a regular progress in the chariot with post-horses. The britshka and pair, which were our ambition, were to wait till my father's next rents came in. Morning calls in the country were a solemn and imposing ceremony, and the head of the family had to be taken on the first circuit; nor was there much scruple as to making them in the forenoon, so several were to be disposed of before fulfilling an engagement to luncheon at the farthest point, where some old London friends had borrowed a house for the summer, and had included me in their invitation.
Here alone did I leave the carriage, but I had Cooper's Spy and my sketch-book as companions while waiting at doors where the inhabitants were at home. The last visit was at Hillside Rectory, a house of architecture somewhat similar to our own, but of the soft creamy stone which so well set off the vine with purple clusters, the myrtles and fuchsias, that covered it. I was wishing we had drawn up far enough off for a sketch to be possible, when, from a window close above, I heard the following words in a clear girlish voice -
'No, indeed! I'm not going down. It is only those horrid Earlscombe people. I can't think how they have the face to come near us!'
There was a reply, perhaps that the parents had made the first visit, for the rejoinder was—'Yes; grandpapa said it was a Christian duty to make an advance; but they need not have come so soon. Indeed, I wonder they show themselves at all. I am sure I would not if I had such a dreadful son.' Presently, 'I hate to think of it. That I should have thanked him. Depend upon it, he will never pay the doctor. A coward like that is capable of anything.'
The proverb had been realised, but there could hardly have been a more involuntary or helpless listener. Presently my parents came back, escorted by both the gentlemen of the house, tall fine-looking men, the elder with snowy hair, and the dignity of men of the old school; the younger with a joyous, hearty, out-of-door countenance, more like a squire than a clergyman.
The visit seemed to have been gratifying. Mrs. Fordyce was declared to be of higher stamp than most of the neighbouring ladies; and my father was much pleased with the two clergymen, while as we drove along he kept on admiring the well-ordered fields and fences, and contrasting the pretty cottages and trim gardens with the dreary appearance of our own village. I asked why Amos Bell's home had been neglected, and was answered with some annoyance, as I pointed down the lane, that it was on our land, though in Hillside parish. 'I am glad to have such neighbours!' observed my mother, and I kept to myself the remarks I had heard, though I was still tingling with the sting of them.
We heard no more of 'they Fordys' for some time. The married pair went away to stay with friends, and we only once met the old gentleman, when I was waiting in the street at Wattlesea in the donkey chair, while my mother was trying to match netting silk in the odd little shop that united fancy work, toys, and tracts with the post office. Old Mr. Fordyce met us as we drew up, handed her out with a grand seigneur's courtesy, and stood talking to me so delightfully that I quite forgot it was from Christian duty.
My father corresponded with the old Rector about the state of the parish, and at last went over to Bath for a personal conference, but without much satisfaction. The Earlscombe people were pronounced to be an ungrateful good-for-nothing set, for whom it was of no use to do anything; and indeed my mother made such discoveries in the cottages that she durst not let Emily fulfil her cherished scheme of visiting them. The only resemblance to the favourite heroines of religious tales that could be permitted was assembling a tiny Sunday class in Chapman's lodge; and it must be confessed that her brothers thought she made as much fuss about it as if there had been a hundred scholars.
However, between remonstrances and offers of undertaking a share of the expense, my father managed to get Mr. Mears' services dispensed with from the ensuing Lady Day, and that a resident curate should be appointed, the choice of whom was to rest with himself. It was then and there decided that Martyn should be 'brought up to the Church,' as people then used to term destination to Holy Orders. My father said he should feel justified in building a good house when he could afford it, if it was to be a provision for one of his sons, and he also felt that as he had the charge of the parish as patron, it was right and fitting to train one of his sons up to take care of it. Nor did Martyn show any distaste to the idea, as indeed there was less in it then than at present to daunt the imagination of an honest, lively boy, not as yet specially thoughtful or devout, but obedient, truthful, and fairly reverent, and ready to grow as he was trained.
CHAPTER XII—MRS. SOPHIA'S FEUD
'O'er all there hung the shadow of a fear, A sense of mystery the spirit daunted, And said as plain as whisper in the ear, The place is haunted.'
We had a houseful at Christmas. The Rev. Charles Henderson, a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, lately ordained a deacon, had been recommended to us by our London vicar, and was willing not only to take charge of the parish, but to direct my studies, and to prepare Martyn for school. He came to us for the Christmas vacation to reconnoitre and engage lodgings at a farmhouse. We liked him very much—my mother being all the better satisfied after he had shown her a miniature, and confided to her that the original was waiting till a college living should come to him in the distant future.
Admiral Griffith could not tear himself from his warm rooms and his club, but our antiquarian friend, Mr. Stafford, came with his wife, and revelled in the ceilings of the mullion room, where he would much have liked to sleep, but that its accommodations were only fit for a bachelor.
Our other visitor was Miss Selby, or rather Mrs. Sophia Selby, as she designated herself, according to the becoming fashion of elderly spinsters, which to my mind might be gracefully resumed. It irked my father to think of the good lady's solitary Christmas at Bath, and he asked her to come to us. She travelled half-way in a post- chaise, and then was met by the carriage. A very nice old lady she was, with a meek, delicate babyish face, which could not be spoilt by the cap of the period, one of the most disfiguring articles of head gear ever devised, though nobody thought so then. She was full of kindness; indeed, if she had a fault it was the abundant pity she lavished on me, and her determination to amuse me. The weather was of the kind that only the healthy and hardy could encounter, and when every one else was gone out, and I was just settling in with a new book, or an old crabbed Latin document, that Mr. Stafford had entrusted to me to copy out fairly and translate, she would glide in with her worsted work on a charitable mission to enliven poor Mr. Edward.
However, this was the means of my obtaining some curious enlightenments. A dinner-party was in contemplation, and she was dismayed at the choice of the fashionable London hour of seven, and still more by finding that the Fordyces were to be among the guests. She was too well-bred to manifest her feelings to her hosts, but alone with me, she could not refrain from expressing her astonishment to me, all the more when she heard this was reciprocity for an invitation that it had not been possible to accept. Her poor dear uncle would never hear of intercourse with Hillside. On being asked why, she repeated what Chapman had said, that he could not endure any one connected with Mrs. Hannah More and her canting, humbugging set, as the ungodly old man had chosen to call them, imbuing even this good woman with evil prejudices against their noble work at Cheddar.
'Besides this, Fordyces and Winslows could never be friends, since the Fordyces had taken on themselves to dispute the will, and say it had been improperly obtained.'
'Mrs. Winslow's—Margaret Fordyce that was. She was the heiress, and had every right to dispose of her property.'
'But that was more than a hundred years ago!'
'So it was, my dear; but though the law gave it to us—to my uncle's grandfather (or great-grandfather, was it?)—those Fordyces never could rest content. Why, one of them—a clergyman's son too—shot young Philip Winslow dead in a duel. They have always grudged at us. Does your papa know it, my dear Mr. Edward? He ought to be aware.'
'I do not know,' I said; 'but he would hardly care about what happened in the time of Queen Anne.'
It was curious to see how the gentle little lady espoused the family quarrel, which, after all, was none of hers.
'Well, you are London people, and the other branch, and may not feel as we do down here; but I shall always say that Madam Winslow's husband's son had every right to come before her cousin once removed.'
I asked if we were descended from her, for, having a turn for heraldry and genealogy, I wanted to make out our family tree. Mrs. Sophia was ready to hold up her hands at the ignorance of the 'other branch.' This poor heiress had lost all her children in their infancy, and bequeathed the estate to her stepson, the Fordyce male heir having been endowed by her father with the advowson of Hillside and a handsome estate there, which Mrs. Selby thought ought to have contented him, 'but some people never know when they have enough;' and, on my observing that it might have been a matter of justice, she waxed hotter, declaring that what the Winslows felt so much was the accusation of violence against the poor lady. She spoke as if it were a story of yesterday, and added, 'Indeed, they made the common people have all sorts of superstitious fancies about the room where she died—that old part of the house.' Then she added in a low mysterious voice, 'I hear that your brother Mr. Griffith Winslow could not sleep there;' and when the rats and the wind were mentioned—'Yes, that was what my poor dear uncle used to say. He always called it nonsense; but we never had a servant who would sleep there. You'll not mention it, Mr. Edward, but I could not help asking that very nice housemaid, Jane, whether the room was used, and she said how Mr. Griffith had given it up, and none of the servants could spend a night there when they are sleeping round. Of course I said all in my power to dispel the idea, and told her that there was no accounting for all the noises in old houses; but you never can reason with that class of people.'
'Did you ever hear the noises, Mrs. Selby?'
'Oh, no; I wouldn't sleep there for thousands! Not that I attach any importance to such folly,—my poor dear uncle would never hear of such a thing; but I am such a nervous creature, I should lie awake all night expecting the rats to run over me. I never knew of any one sleeping there, except in the gay times when I was a child, and the house used to be as full as, or fuller than, it could hold, for the hunt breakfast or a ball, and my poor aunt used to make up ever so many beds in the two rooms, and then we never heard of any disturbance, except what they made themselves.'
This chiefly concerned me, because home cosseting had made me old woman enough to be uneasy about unaired beds; and I knew that my mother meant to consign Clarence to the mullion chamber. So, without betraying Jane, I spoke to her, and was answered, 'Oh, sir, I'll take care of that; I'll light a fire and air the mattresses well. I wish that was all, poor young gentleman!'
To the reply that the rats were slaughtered and the wind stopped out, Jane returned a look of compassion; but the subject was dropped, as it was supposed to be the right thing to hush up, instead of fostering, any popular superstition; but it surprised me that, as all our servants were fresh importations, they should so soon have become imbued with these undefined alarms.
My father was much amused at being successor to this family feud, and said that when he had time he would look up the documents.
Mrs. Sophia was a sight when Mr. Fordyce and his son and daughter- in-law were announced; she was so comically stiff between her deference to her hosts and her allegiance to her poor dear uncle; but her coldness melted before the charms of old Mr. Fordyce, who was one of the most delightful people in the world. She even was his partner at whist, and won the game, and that she DID like.
Parson Frank, as we naughty young ones called him, was all good- nature and geniality—a thorough clergyman after the ideas of the time, and a thorough farmer too; and in each capacity, as well as in politics, he suited my father or Mr. Henderson. His lady, in a blonde cap, exactly like the last equipment my mother had provided herself with in London, and a black satin dress, had much more style than the more gaily-dressed country dames, and far more conversation. Mr. Stafford, who had dreaded the party, pronounced her a sensible, agreeable woman, and she was particularly kind and pleasant to me, coming and talking over the botany of the country, and then speaking of my brother's kindness to poor Amos Bell, who was nearly recovered, but was a weakly child, for whom she dreaded the toil of a ploughboy in thick clay with heavy shoes.
I was sorry when, after Emily's well-studied performance on the piano, Mrs. Fordyce was summoned away from me to sing, but her music and her voice were both of a very different order from ordinary drawing-room music; and when our evening was over, we congratulated ourselves upon our neighbours, and agreed that the Fordyces were the gems of the party.
Only Mrs. Sophia sighed at us as degenerate Winslows, and Emily reserved to herself the right of believing that the daughter was 'a horrid girl.'
CHAPTER XIII—A SCRAPE
'Though bound with weakness' heavy chain We in the dust of earth remain; Not all remorseful be our tears, No agony of shame or fears, Need pierce its passion's bitter tide.'
Verses and Sonnets.
Perhaps it was of set purpose that our dinner. party had been given before Clarence's return. Griffith had been expected in time for it, but he had preferred going by way of London to attend a ball given by the daughter of a barrister friend of my father's. Selina Clarkson was a fine showy girl, with the sort of beauty to inspire boyish admiration, and Griff's had been a standing family joke, even my father condescending to tease him when the young lady married Sir Henry Peacock, a fat vulgar old man who had made his fortune in the commissariat, and purchased a baronetcy. He was allowing his young wife her full swing of fashion and enjoyment. My mother did not think it a desirable acquaintance, and was restless until both the brothers came home together, long after dark on Christmas Eve, having been met by the gig at the corner where the coach stopped. The dinner-hour had been put off till half-past six, and we had to wait for them, the coach having been delayed by setting down Christmas guests and Christmas fare. They were a contrast; Griffith looking very handsome and manly, all in a ruddy glow from the frosty air, and Clarence, though equally tall, well-made, and with more refined features, looked pale and effaced, now that his sailor tan was worn off. The one talked as eagerly as he ate, the other was shy, spiritless, and with little appetite; but as he always shrank into himself among strangers, it was the less wonder that he sat in his drooping way behind my sofa, while Griffith kept us all merry with his account of the humours of the 'Peacock at home;' the lumbering efforts of old Sir Henry to be as young and gay as his wife, in spite of gout and portliness; and the extreme delight of his lady in her new splendours—a gold spotted muslin and white plumes in a diamond agraffe. He mimicked Sir Henry's cockneyisms more than my father's chivalry approved towards his recent host, as he described the complaints he had heard against 'my Lady being refused the hentry at Halmack's, but treated like the wery canal;' and how the devoted husband 'wowed he would get up a still more hexclusive circle, and shut hout these himpertinent fashionables who regarded Halmack's as the seventh 'eaven.'
My mother shook her head at his audacious fun about Paradise and the Peri, but he was so brilliant and good-humoured that no one was ever long displeased with him. At night he followed when Clarence helped me to my room, and carefully shutting the door, Griff began. 'Now, Teddy, you're always as rich as a Jew, and I told Bill you'd help him to set it straight. I'd do it myself, but that I'm cleaned out. I'd give ten times the cash rather than see him with that hang-dog look again for just nothing at all, if he would only believe so and be rational.'
Clarence did look indescribably miserable while it was explained that he had been commissioned to receive about 20 pounds which was owing to my father, and to discharge therewith some small debts to London tradesmen. All except the last, for a little more than four pounds, had been paid, when Clarence met in the street an old messmate, a good-natured rattle-pated youth,—one of those who had thought him harshly treated. There was a cordial greeting, and an invitation to dine at once at a hotel, where they were joined by some other young men, and by and by betook themselves to cards, when my poor brother's besetting enemy prevented him from withdrawing when he found the points were guineas. Thus he lost the remaining amount in his charge, and so much of his own that barely enough was left for his journey. His salary was not due till Lady Day; Mr. Castleford was in the country, and no advances could be asked from Mr. Frith. Thus Griff had found him in utter despair, and had ever since been trying to cheer him and make light of his trouble. If I advanced the amount, which was no serious matter to me, Clarence could easily get Peter to pay the bill, and if my father should demand the receipt too soon, it would be easy to put him off by saying there had been a delay in getting the account sent in.
'I couldn't do that,' said Clarence.
'Well, I should not have thought you would have stuck at that,' returned Griff.
'There must be no untruth,' I broke in; 'but if without THAT, he can avoid getting into a scrape with papa—'
Clarence interrupted in the wavering voice we knew so well, but growing clearer and stronger.
'Thank you, Edward, but—but—no, I can't. There's the Sacrament to-morrow.'
'Oh—h!' said Griff, in an indescribable tone. But he will never believe you, nor let you go.'
'Better so,' said Clarence, half choked, 'than go profanely— deceiving—or not knowing whether I shall—'
Just then we heard our father wishing the other gentlemen good- night, and to our surprise Clarence opened the door, though he was deadly white and with dew starting on his forehead.
My father turned good-naturedly. 'Boys, boys, you are glad to be together, but mamma won't have you talking here all night, keeping her baby up.'
'Sir,' said Clarence, holding by the rail of the bed, 'I was waiting for you. I have something to tell you—'
The words that followed were incoherent and wrong end foremost; nor had many, indeed, been uttered before my father cut them short with -
'No false excuses, sir; I know you too well to listen. Go. I have ceased to hope for anything better.'
Clarence went without a word, but Griff and I burst out with entreaties to be listened to. Our father thought at first that ours were only the pleadings of partiality, and endeavours to shield the brother we both so heartily loved; but when he understood the circumstances, the real amount of the transgression, and Clarence's rejection of our united advice and assistance to conceal it, he was greatly touched and softened. 'Poor lad! poor fellow!' he muttered, 'he is really doing his best. I need not have cut him so short. I was afraid of more falsehoods if I let him open his mouth. I'll go and see.'
He went off, and we remained in suspense, Griff observing that he had done his best, but poor Bill always would be a fool, and that no one who had not always lived at home like me would have let out that we had been for the suppression policy. As I was rather shocked, he went off to bed, saying he should look in to see what remained of Clarence after the pelting of the pitiless storm he was sure to bring on himself by his ridiculous faltering instead of speaking out like a man.
I longed to have been able to do the same, but my father kindly came back to relieve my mind by telling me that he was better satisfied about Clarence than ever he had been before. When encouraged to speak out, the narrative of the temptation had so entirely agreed with what we had said as to show there had been no prevarication, and this had done more to convince my father that he was on the right track than the having found him on his knees. He had had a patient hearing, and thus was able to command his nerves enough to explain himself, and it had ended in my father giving entire forgiveness for what, as Griff truly said, would have been a mere trifle but for the past. The voluntary confession had much impressed my father, and he could not help adding a word of gentle reproof to me for having joined in aiding him to withhold it, but he accepted my explanation and went away, observing, 'By the by, I don't wonder at what Griffith says of that room; I never heard such strange effects of currents of air.'
Clarence was in my room before I was drest, full of our father's 'wonderful goodness' to him. He had never experienced anything like it, he said. 'Why! he really seemed hopeful about me,' were words uttered with a gladness enough to go to one's heart. 'O Edward, I feel as if there was some chance of "steadfastly purposing" this time.'
It was not the way of the family to say much of religious feeling, and this was much for Clarence to utter. He looked white and tired, but there was an air of rest and peace about him, above all when my mother met him with a very real kiss. Moreover, Mr. Castleford had taken care to brighten our Christmas with a letter expressive of great satisfaction with Clarence for steadiness and intelligence. Even Mr. Frith allowed that he was the most punctual of all those young dogs.
'I do believe,' said my father, 'that his piety is doing him some good after all.'
So our mutual wishes of a happy Christmas were verified, though not much according to the notions of this half of the century. People made their Christmas day either mere merriment, or something little different from the grave Sunday of that date. And ours, except for the Admiral's dining with us, had always been of the latter description, all the more that when celebrations of the Holy Communion were so rare they were treated with an awe and reverence which frequency has perhaps diminished, and a feeling (possibly Puritanical) prevailed which made it appear incongruous to end with festivity a day so begun. That we had a Christmas Day Communion at all at Earlscombe was an innovation only achieved by Mr. Henderson going to assist the old Rector at Wattlesea; and there were no communicants except from our house, besides Chapman, his daughter- in-law, and five old creatures between whom the alms were immediately divided. We afterwards learnt that our best farmer and his wife were much disappointed at the change from Sunday interfering with the family jollification; and Mrs. Sophia Selby was annoyed at the contradiction to her habits under the rule of her poor dear uncle.
Of the irregularities, irreverences, and squalor of the whole I will not speak. They were not then such stumbling-blocks as they would be now, and many passed unperceived by us, buried as we were in our big pew, with our eyes riveted on our books; yet even thus there was enough evident to make my mother rejoice that Mr. Henderson would be with us before Easter. Still this could not mar the thankful gladness that was with us all that day, and which shone in Clarence's eyes. His countenance always had a remarkable expression in church, as if somehow his spirit went farther than ours did, and things unseen were more real to him.
Hillside, as usual, had two services, and my father and his friend were going to walk thither in the afternoon, but it was a raw cold day, threatening snow, and Emily was caught by my mother in the hail and ordered back, as well as Clarence, who had shown symptoms of having caught cold on his dismal journey. Emily coaxed from her permission to have a fire in the bookroom, and there we three had a memorably happy time. We read our psalms and lessons, and our Christian Year, which was more and more the lodestar of our feelings. We compared our favourite passages, and discussed the obscurer ones, and Clarence was led to talk out more of his heart than he had ever shown to us before. Perhaps he had lost some of his reserve through his intercourse with our good old governess, Miss Newton, who was still grinding away at her daily mill, though with somewhat failing eyesight, so that she could do nothing but knit in the long evenings, and was most grateful to her former pupil for coming, as often as he could, to talk or read to her.
She was a most excellent and devout woman, and when Emily, who in youthful gaiete de coeur had got a little tired of her, exclaimed at his taste, and asked if she made him read nothing but Pike's Early Piety, he replied gravely, 'She showed me where to lay my burthen down,' and turned to the two last verses of the poem for 'Good Friday' in the Christian Year, as well as to the one we had just read on the Holy Communion.
My father's kindness had seemed to him the pledge of the Heavenly Father's forgiveness; and he added, perhaps a little childishly, that it had been his impulse to promise never to touch a card again, but that he dreaded the only too familiar reply, 'What availed his promises?'
'Do promise, Clarry!' cried Emily, 'and then you won't have to play with that tiresome old Mrs. Sophia.'
'That would rather deter me,' said Clarence good-humouredly.
'A card-playing old age is despicable,' pronounced Miss Emily, much to our amusement.
After that we got into a bewilderment. We knew nothing of the future question of temperance versus total abstinence; but after it had been extracted that Miss Newton regarded cards as the devil's books, the inconsistent little sister changed sides, and declared it narrow and evangelical to renounce what was innocent. Clarence argued that what might be harmless for others might be dangerous for such as himself, and that his real difficulty in making even a mental vow was that, if broken, there was an additional sin.
'It is not oneself that one trusts,' I said.
'No,' said Clarence emphatically; 'and setting up a vow seems as if it might be sticking up the reed of one's own word, and leaning on THAT—when it breaks, at least mine does. If I could always get the grasp of Him that I felt to-day, there would be no more bewildered heart and failing spirit, which are worse than the actual falls they cause.' And as Emily said she did not understand, he replied in words I wrote down and thought over, 'What we ARE is the point, more than even what we DO. We DO as we ARE; and yet we form ourselves by what we DO.'
'And,' I put in, 'I know somebody who won a victory last night over himself and his two brothers. Surely DOING that is a sign that he IS more than he used to be.'
'If he were, it would not have been an effort at all,' said Clarence, but with his rare sweet smile.
Just then Griff called him away, and Emily sat pondering and impressed. 'It did seem so odd,' she said, 'that Clarry should be so much the best, and yet so much the worst of us.'
I agreed. His insight into spiritual things, and his enjoyment of them, always humiliated us both, yet he fell so much lower in practice,—'But then we had not his temptations.'
'Yes,' said Emily; 'but look at Griff! He goes about like other young men, and keeps all right, and yet he doesn't care about religious things a bit more than he can help.'
It was quite true. Religion was life to the one and an insurance to the other, and this had been a mystery to us all our young lives, as far as we had ever reflected on the contrast between the practical failure and success of each. Our mother, on the other hand, viewed Clarence's tendencies as part of an unreal, self-deceptive nature, and regretted his intimacy with Miss Newton, who, she said, had fostered 'that kind of thing' in his childhood—made him fancy talk, feeling, and preaching were more than truth and honour—and might lead him to run after Irving, Rowland Hill, or Baptist Noel, about whose tenets she was rather confused. It would be an additional misfortune if he became a fanatical Evangelical light, and he was just the character to be worked upon.
My father held that she might be thankful for any good influence or safe resort for a young man in lodgings in London, and he merely bade Clarence never resort to any variety of dissenting preacher. We were of the school called—a little later—high and dry, but were strictly orthodox according to our lights, and held it a prime duty to attend our parish church, whatever it might be; nor, indeed, had Clarence swerved from these traditions.
Poor Mrs. Sophia was baulked of the game at whist, which she viewed as a legitimate part of the Christmas pleasures; and after we had eaten our turkey, we found the evening long, except that Martyn escaped to snapdragon with the servants; and, by and by, Chapman, magnificent in patronage, ushered in the church singers into the hall, and clarionet, bassoon, and fiddle astonished our ears.
CHAPTER XIV—THE MULLION CHAMBER
'A lady with a lamp I see, Pass through the glimmering gloom, And flit from room to room.'
For want of being able to take exercise, the first part of the night had always been sleepless with me, though my dear mother thought it wrong to recognise the habit or allow me a lamp. A fire, however, I had, and by its light, on the second night after Christmas, I saw my door noiselessly opened, and Clarence creeping in half-dressed and barefooted. To my frightened interrogation the answer came, through chattering teeth, 'It's I—only I—Ted—no—nothing's the matter, only I can't stand it any longer!'
His hands were cold as ice when he grasped mine, as if to get hold of something substantial, and he trembled so as to shake the bed. 'That room,' he faltered. ''Tis not only the moans! I've seen her!'
'I don't know. There she stands with her lamp, crying!' I could scarcely distinguish the words through the clashing of his teeth, and as I threw my arms round him the shudder seemed to pass to me; but I did my best to warm him by drawing the clothes over him, and he began to gather himself together, and speak intelligibly. There had been sounds the first night as of wailing, but he had been too much preoccupied to attend to them till, soon after one o'clock, they ended in a heavy fall and long shriek, after which all was still. Christmas night had been undisturbed, but on this the voices had begun again at eleven, and had a strangely human sound; but as it was windy, sleety weather, and he had learnt at sea to disregard noises in the rigging, he drew the sheet over his head and went to sleep. 'I was dreaming that I was at sea,' he said, 'as I always do on a noisy night, but this was not a dream. I was wakened by a light in the room, and there stood a woman with a lamp, moaning and sobbing. My first notion was that one of the maids had come to call me, and I sat up; but I could not speak, and she gave another awful suppressed cry, and moved towards that walled-up door. Then I saw it was none of the servants, for it was an antique dress like an old picture. So I knew what it must be, and an unbearable horror came over me, and I rushed into the outer room, where there was a little fire left; but I heard her going on still, and I could endure it no longer. I knew you would be awake and would bear with me, so I came down to you.'
Then this was what Chapman and the maids had meant. This was Mrs. Sophia Selby's vulgar superstition! I found that Clarence had heard none of the mysterious whispers afloat, and only knew that Griff had deserted the room after his own return to London. I related what I had learnt from the old lady, and in that midnight hour we agreed that it could be no mere fancy or rumour, but that cruel wrong must have been done in that chamber. Our feeling was that all ought to be made known, and in that impression we fell asleep, Clarence first.
By and by I found him moving. He had heard the clock strike four, and thought it wiser to repair to his own quarters, where he believed the disturbance was over. Lucifer matches as yet were not, but he had always been a noiseless being, with a sailor's foot, so that, by the help of the moonlight through the hall windows, he regained his room.
And when morning had come, the nocturnal visitation wore such a different aspect to both our minds that we decided to say nothing to our parents, who, said Clarence, would simply disbelieve him; and, indeed, I inclined to suppose it had been an uncommonly vivid dream, produced in that sensitive nature by the uncanny sounds of the wind in the chinks and crannies of the ancient chamber. Had not Scott's Demonology and Witchcraft, which we studied hard on that day, proved all such phantoms to be explicable? The only person we told was Griff, who was amused and incredulous. He had heard the noises—oh yes! and objected to having his sleep broken by them. It was too had to expose Clarence to them—poor Bill—on whom they worked such fancies!
He interrogated Chapman, however, but probably in that bantering way which is apt to produce reserve. Chapman never 'gave heed to them fictious tales,' he said; but, when hard pressed, he allowed that he had 'heerd that a lady do walk o' winter nights,' and that was why the garden door of the old rooms was walled up. Griff asked if this was done for fear she should catch cold, and this somewhat affronted him, so that he averred that he knew nought about it, and gave no thought to such like.
Just then they arrived at the Winslow Arms, and took each a glass of ale, when Griff, partly to tease Chapman, asked the landlady—an old Chantry House servant—whether she had ever met the ghost. She turned rather pale, which seemed to have impressed him, and demanded if he had seen it. 'It always walked at Christmas time—between then and the New Year.' She had once seen a light in the garden by the ruin in winter-time, and once last spring it came along the passage, but that was just before the old Squire was took for death,—folks said that was always the way before any of the family died—'if you'll excuse it, sir.' Oh no, she thought nothing of such things, but she had heard tell that the noises were such at all times of the year that no one could sleep in the rooms, but the light wasn't to be seen except at Christmas.
Griff with the philosophy of a university man, was certain that all was explained by Clarence having imbibed the impression of the place being haunted; and going to sleep nervous at the noises, his brain had shaped a phantom in accordance. Let Clarence declare as he might that the legends were new to him, Griff only smiled to think how easily people forgot, and he talked earnestly about catching ideas without conscious information.
However, he volunteered to sit up that night to ascertain the exact causes of the strange noises and convince Clarence that they were nothing but the effects of draughts. The fire in his gunroom was surreptitiously kept up to serve for the vigil, which I ardently desired to share. It was an enterprise; it would gratify my curiosity; and besides, though Griffith was good-natured and forbearing in a general way towards Clarence, I detected a spirit of mockery about him which might break out unpleasantly when poor Clarry was convicted of one of his unreasonable panics.
Both brothers were willing to gratify me, the only difficulty being that the tap of my crutches would warn the entire household of the expedition. However, they had—all unknown to my mother—several times carried me about queen's cushion fashion, as, being always much of a size, they could do most handily; and as both were now fine, strong, well-made youths of twenty and nineteen, they had no doubt of easily and silently conveying me up the shallow-stepped staircase when all was quiet for the night.
Emily, with her sharp ears, guessed that something was in hand, but we promised her that she should know all in time. I believe Griff, being a little afraid of her quickness, led her to suppose he was going to hold what he called a symposium in his rooms, and to think it a mystery of college life not intended for young ladies.
He really had prepared a sort of supper for us when, after my father's resounding turn of the key of the drawing-room door, my brothers, in their stocking soles, bore me upstairs, the fun of the achievement for the moment overpowering all sense of eeriness. Griff said he could not receive me in his apartment without doing honour to the occasion, and that Dutch courage was requisite for us both; but I suspect it was more in accordance with Oxford habits that he had provided a bottle of sherry and another of ale, some brandy cherries, bread, cheese, and biscuits, by what means I do not know, for my mother always locked up the wine. He was disappointed that Clarence would touch nothing, and declared that inanition was the preparation for ghost-seeing or imagining. I drank his health in a glass of sherry as I looked round at the curious old room, with its panelled roof, the heraldic devices and badges of the Power family, and the trophy of swords, dirks, daggers, and pistols, chiefly relics of our naval grandfather, but reinforced by the sword, helmet, and spurs of the county Yeomanry which Griff had joined.
Griff proposed cards to drive away fancies, especially as the sounds were beginning; but though we generally yielded to him we COULD not give our attention to anything but these. There was first a low moan. 'No great harm in that,' said Griff; 'it comes through that crack in the wainscot where there is a sham window. Some putty will put a stop to that.'
Then came a more decided wail and sob much nearer to us. Griff hastily swallowed the ale in his tumbler, and, striking a theatrical attitude, exclaimed, 'Angels and ministers of grace defend us!'
Clarence held up his hand in deprecation. The door into his bedroom was open, and Griff, taking up one of the flat candlesticks, pursued his researches, holding the flame to all chinks or cracks in the wainscotting to detect draughts which might cause the dreary sounds, which were much more like suppressed weeping than any senseless gust of wind. Of draughts there were many, and he tried holding his hand against each crevice to endeavour to silence the wails; but these became more human and more distressful. Presently Clarence exclaimed, 'There!' and on his face there was a whiteness and an expression which always recurs to me on reading those words of Eliphaz the Temanite, 'Then a spirit passed before my face, and the hair of my flesh stood up.' Even Griff was awestruck as we cried, 'Where? what?'
'Don't you see her? There! By the press—look!'
'I see a patch of moonlight on the wall,' said Griff.
'Moonlight—her lamp. Edward, don't you see her?'
I could see nothing but a spot of light on the wall. Griff (plainly putting a force on himself) came back and gave him a good-natured shake. 'Dreaming again, old Bill. Wake up and come to your senses.'
'I am as much in my senses as you are,' said Clarence. 'I see her as plainly as I see you.'
Nor could any one doubt either the reality of the awe in his voice and countenance, nor of the light—a kind of hazy ball—nor of the choking sobs.
'What is she like?' I asked, holding his hand, for, though infected by his dread, my fears were chiefly for the effect on him; but he was much calmer and less horror-struck than on the previous night, though still he shuddered as he answered in a low voice, as if loth to describe a lady in her presence, 'A dark cloak with the hood fallen back, a kind of lace headdress loosely fastened, brown hair, thin white face, eyes—oh, poor thing!—staring with fright, dark— oh, how swollen the lids! all red below with crying—black dress with white about it—a widow kind of look—a glove on the arm with the lamp. Is she beckoning—looking at us? Oh, you poor thing, if I could tell what you mean!'
I felt the motion of his muscles in act to rise, and grasped him. Griff held him with a strong hand, hoarsely crying, 'Don't!—don't— don't follow the thing, whatever you do!'
Clarence hid his face. It was very awful and strange. Once the thought of conjuring her to speak by the Holy Name crossed me, but then I saw no figure; and with incredulous Griffith standing by, it would have been like playing, nor perhaps could I have spoken. How long this lasted there is no knowing; but presently the light moved towards the walled-up door and seemed to pass into it. Clarence raised his head and said she was gone. We breathed freely.
'The farce is over,' said Griff. 'Mr. Edward Winslow's carriage stops the way!'
I was hoisted up, candle in hand, between the two, and had nearly reached the stairs when there came up on the garden side a sound as of tipsy revellers in the garden. 'The scoundrels! how can they have got in?' cried Griff, looking towards the window; but all the windows on that side had peculiarly heavy shutters and bars, with only a tiny heart-shaped aperture very high up, so they somewhat hurried their steps downstairs, intending to rush out on the intruders from the back door. But suddenly, in the middle of the staircase, we heard a terrible heartrending woman's shriek, making us all start and have a general fall. My brothers managed to seat me safely on a step without much damage to themselves, but the candle fell and was extinguished, and we made too heavy a weight to fall without real noise enough to bring the household together before we could pick ourselves up in the dark.
We heard doors opening and hurried calls, and something about pistols, impelling Griff to call out, 'It's nothing, papa; but there are some drunken rascals in the garden.'
A light had come by this time, and we were detected. There was a general sally upon the enemy in the garden before any one thought of me, except a 'You here!' when they nearly fell over me. And there I was left sitting on the stair, helpless without my crutches, till in a few minutes all returned declaring there was nothing—no signs of anything; and then as Clarence ran up to me with my crutches my father demanded the meaning of my being there at that time of night.
'Well, sir,' said Griff, 'it is only that we have been sitting up to investigate the ghost.'
'Ghost! Arrant stuff and nonsense! What induced you to be dragging Edward about in this dangerous way?'
'I wished it,' said I.
'You are all mad together, I think. I won't have the house disturbed for this ridiculous folly. I shall look into it to- morrow!'
CHAPTER XV—RATIONAL THEORIES
'These are the reasons, they are natural.'
If anything could have made our adventure more unpleasant to Mr. and Mrs. Winslow, it would have been the presence of guests. However, inquiry was suppressed at breakfast, in deference to the signs my mother made to enjoin silence before the children, all unaware that Emily was nearly frantic with suppressed curiosity, and Martyn knew more about the popular version of the legend than any of us.
Clarence looked wan and heavy-eyed. His head was aching from a bump against the edge of a step, and his cold was much worse; no wonder, said my mother; but she was always softened by any ailment, and feared that the phantoms were the effect of coming illness. I have always thought that if Clarence could have come home from his court- martial with a brain fever he would have earned immediate forgiveness; but unluckily for him, he was a very healthy person.
All three of us were summoned to the tribunal in the study, where my father and my mother sat in judgment on what they termed 'this preposterous business.' In our morning senses our impressions were much more vague than at midnight, and we betrayed some confusion; but Griff and I had a strong instinct of sheltering Clarence, and we stoutly declared the noises to be beyond the capacities of wind, rats, or cats; that the light was visible and inexplicable; and that though we had seen nothing else, we could not doubt that Clarence did.
'Thought he did,' corrected my father.
'Without discussing the word,' said Griff, 'I mean that the effect on his senses was the same as the actual sight. You could not look at him without being certain.'
'Exactly so,' returned my mother. 'I wish Dr. Fellowes were near.'
Indeed nothing saved Clarence from being consigned to medical treatment but the distance from Bath or Bristol, and the contradictory advice that had been received from our county neighbours as to our family doctor. However, she formed her theory that his nervous imaginings—whether involuntary or acted, she hoped the former, and wished she could be sure—had infected us; and, as she was really uneasy about him, she would not let him sleep in the mullion room, but having nowhere else to bestow him, she turned out the man-servant and put him into the little room beyond mine, and she also forbade any mention of the subject to him that day.
This was a sore prohibition to Emily, who had been discussing it with the other ladies, and was in a mingled state of elation at the romance, and terror at the supernatural, which found vent in excited giggle, and moved Griff to cram her with raw-head and bloody-bone horrors, conventional enough to be suspicious, and send her to me tearfully to entreat to know the truth. If by day she exulted in a haunted chamber, in the evening she paid for it by terrors at walking about the house alone, and, when sent on an errand by my mother, looked piteous enough to be laughed at or scolded on all sides.
The gentlemen had more serious colloquies, and the upshot was a determination to sit up together and discover the origin of the annoyance. Mr. Stafford's antiquarian researches had made him familiar with such mysteries, and enough of them had been explained by natural causes to convince him that there was a key to all the rest. Owls, coiners, and smugglers had all been convicted of simulating ghosts. In one venerable mansion, behind the wainscot, there had been discovered nine skeletons of cats in different stages of decay, having trapped themselves at various intervals of time, and during the gradual extinction of their eighty-one lives having emitted cries enough to establish the ghastly reputation of the place. Perhaps Mr. Henderson was inclined to believe there were more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in even an antiquary's philosophy. He owned himself perplexed, but reserved his opinion.
At breakfast Clarence was quite well, except for the remains of his sore throat, and the two seniors were gruff and brief as to their watch. They had heard odd noises, and should discover the cause; the carpenter had already been sent for, and they had seen a light which was certainly due to reflection or refraction. Mr. Henderson committed himself to nothing but that 'it was very extraordinary;' and there was a wicked look of diversion on Griff's face, and an exchange of glances. Afterwards, in our own domain, we extracted a good deal more from them.
Griff told us how the two elders started on politics, and denounced Brougham and O'Connell loud enough to terrify any save the most undaunted ghost, till Henderson said 'Hush!' and they paused at the moan with which the performance always commenced, making Mr. Stafford turn, as Griff said, 'white in the gills,' though he talked of the wind on the stillest of frosty nights. Then came the sobbing and wailing, which certainly overawed them all; Henderson called them 'agonising,' but Griff was in a manner inured to this, and felt as if master of the ceremonies. Let them say what they would by daylight about owls, cats, and rats, they owned the human element then, and were far from comfortable, though they would not compromise their good sense by owning what both their younger companions had perceived—their feeling of some undefinable presence. Vain attempts had been made to account for the light or get rid of it by changing the position of candles or bright objects in the outer room; and Henderson had shut himself into the bedroom with it; but there he still only saw the hazy light—though all was otherwise pitch dark, except the keyhole and the small gray patch of sky at the top of the window-shutters. 'You saw nothing else?' said Griff. 'I thought I heard you break out as Clarence did, just before my father opened the door.'
'Perhaps I did so. I had the sense strongly on me of some being in grievous distress very near me.'
'And you should have power over it,' suggested Emily.
'I am afraid,' he said, 'that more thorough conviction and comprehension are needed before I could address the thing with authority. I should like to have stayed longer and heard the conclusion.'
For Mr. Stafford had grown impatient and weary, and my father having satisfied himself that there was something to be detected, would not remain to the end, and not only carried his companions off, but locked the doors, perhaps expecting to imprison some agent in a trick, and find him in the morning.
Indeed Clarence had a dim remembrance of having been half wakened by some one looking in on him in the night, when he was sleeping heavily after his cold and the previous night's disturbance, and we suspected, though we would not say, that our father might have wished to ascertain that he had no share in producing these appearances. He was, however, fully acquitted of all wilful deception in the case, and he was not surprised, though he was disappointed, that his vision of the lady was supposed to be the consequence of excited imagination.
'I can't help it,' he said to me in private. 'I have always seen or felt, or whatever you may call it, things that others do not. Don't you remember how nobody would believe that I saw Lucy Brooke?'
'That was in the beginning of the measles.'
' I know; and I will tell you something curious. When I was at Gibraltar I met Mrs. Emmott—'
'Yes; I spent a very happy Sunday with her. We talked over old times, and she told me that Lucy had all through her illness been very uneasy about having promised to bring me a macaw's feather the next time we played in the Square gardens. It could not be sent to me for fear of carrying the infection, but the dear girl was too light-headed to understand, and kept on fretting and wandering about breaking her word. I have no doubt the wish carried her spirit to me the moment it was free,' he added, with tears springing to his eyes. He also said that before the court-martial he had, night after night, dreams of sinking and drowning in huge waves, and his friend Coles struggling to come to his aid, but being forcibly withheld; and he had since learnt that Coles had actually endeavoured to come from Plymouth to bear testimony to his previous character, but had been refused leave, and told that he could do no good.
There had been other instances of perception of a presence and of a prescient foreboding. 'It is like a sixth sense,' he said, 'and a very uncomfortable one. I would give much to be rid of it, for it is connected with all that is worst in my life. I had it before Navarino, when no one expected an engagement. It made me believe I should be killed, and drove me to what was much worse—or at least I used to think so.'
'Don't you now?' I asked.
'No,' said Clarence. 'It was a great mercy that I did not die then. There's something to conquer first. But you'll never speak of this, Ted. I have left off telling of such things—it only gives another reason for disbelieving me.'
However, this time his veracity was not called in question,—but he was supposed to be under a hallucination, the creation of the noises acting on his imagination and memory of the persecuted widow, which must have been somewhere dormant in his mind, though he averred that he had never heard of it. It had now, however, made a strong impression on him; he was convinced that some crime or injustice had been perpetrated, and thought it ought to be investigated; but Griffith made us laugh at his championship of this shadow of a shade, and even wrote some mock heroic verses about it,—nor would it have been easy to stir my father to seek for the motives of an apparition which no one in the family save Clarence professed to have seen.
The noises were indisputable, but my mother began to suspect a cause for them. To oblige a former cook we had brought down with us as stable-boy her son, George Sims, an imp accustomed to be the pet and jester of a mews. Martyn was only too fond of his company, and he made no secret of his contempt for the insufferable dulness of the country, enlivening it by various acts of monkey-mischief, in some of which Martyn had been implicated. That very afternoon, as Mrs. Sophia Selby was walking home in the twilight from Chapman's lodge, in company with Mr. Henderson, an eldritch yell proceeding from the vaults beneath the mullion chambers nearly frightened her into fits. Henderson darted in and captured the two boys in the fact. Martyn's asseveration that he had taken the pair for Griff and Emily would have pacified the good-natured clergyman, but Mrs. Sophia was too much agitated, or too spiteful, as we declared, not to make a scene.
Martyn spent the evening alone and in disgrace, and only his unimpeachable character for truth caused the acceptance of his affirmation that the yell was an impromptu fraternal compliment, and that he had nothing to do with the noises in the mullion chamber. He had been supposed to be perfectly unconscious of anything of the kind, and to have never so much as heard of a phantom, so my mother was taken somewhat aback when, in reply to her demand whether he had ever been so naughty as to assist George in making a noise in Clarence's room, he said, 'Why, that's the ghost of the lady that was murdered atop of the steps, and always walks every Christmas!'
'Who told you such ridiculous nonsense?'
The answer 'George' was deemed conclusive that all had been got up by that youth; and there was considerable evidence of his talent for ventriloquism and taste for practical jokes. My mother was certain that, having heard of the popular superstition, he had acted ghost. She appealed to Woodstock to prove the practicability of such feats; and her absolute conviction persuaded the maids (who had given warning en masse) that the enemy was exorcised when George Sims had been sent off on the Royal Mail under Clarence's guardianship.
None of the junior part of the family believed him guilty, but he had hunted the cows round the paddock, mounted on my donkey, had nearly shot the kitchen-maid with Griff's gun, and, if not much maligned, knew the way to the apple-chamber only too well,—so that he richly deserved his doom, rejoiced in it himself, and was unregretted save by Martyn. Clarence viewed him in the light of a victim, and tried to keep an eye on him, but he developed his talent as a ventriloquist, made his fortune, and retired on a public-house.
My mother would fain have had the vaults under the mullion rooms bricked up, but Mr. Stafford cried out on the barbarism of such a proceeding. The mystery was declared to be solved, and was added to Mr. Stafford's good stories of haunted houses.
And at home my father forbade any further mention of such rank folly and deception. The inner mullion chamber was turned into a lumber- room, and as weeks passed by without hearing or seeing any more of lady or of lamp, we began to credit the wonderful freaks of the goblin page.
CHAPTER XVI—CAT LANGUAGE
Soon as she parted thence—the fearful twayne, That blind old woman and her daughter deare, Came forth, and finding Kirkrapine there slayne, For anguish greate they gan to rend their heare And beate their breasts, and naked flesh to teare; And when they both had wept and wayled their fill, Then forth they ran, like two amazed deere, Half mad through malice and revenging will, To follow her that was the causer of their ill.'
The Christmas vacation was not without another breeze about Griffith's expenses at Oxford. He held his head high, and declared that people expected something from the eldest son of a man of property, and my father tried to convince him that a landed estate often left less cash available than did the fixed salary of an office. Griff treated all in his light, good-humoured way, promised to be careful, and came to me to commiserate the poor old gentleman's ignorance of the ways of the new generation.
There ensued some trying weeks of dark days, raw frost, and black east wind, when the home party cast longing, lingering recollections back to the social intercourse, lamp-lit streets, and ready interchange of books and other amenities we had left behind us. We were not accustomed to have our nearest neighbours separated from us by two miles of dirty lane, or road mended with excruciating stones, nor were they very congenial when we did see them. The Fordyce family might be interesting, but we younger ones could not forget the slight to Clarence, and, besides, the girls seemed to be entirely in the schoolroom, Mrs. Fordyce was delicate and was shut up all the winter, and the only intercourse that took place was when my father met the elder Mr. Fordyce at the magistrates' bench; also there was a conference about Amos Bell, who was preferred to the post left vacant by George Sims, in right of his being our tenant, but more civilised than Earlscombers, a widow's son, and not sufficiently recovered from his accident to be exposed to the severe tasks of a ploughboy in the winter.
Mrs. Fordyce was the manager of a book-club, which circulated volumes covered in white cartridge paper, with a printed list of the subscribers' names. Two volumes at a time might be kept for a month by each member in rotation, novels were excluded, and the manager had a veto on all orders. We found her more liberal than some of our other neighbours, who looked on our wants and wishes with suspicion as savouring of London notions. Happily we could read old books and standard books over again, and we gloated over Blackwood and the Quarterly, enjoying, too, every out-of-door novelty of the coming spring, as each revealed itself. Emily will never forget her first primroses, nor I the first thrush in early morning.
Blankets, broth, and what were uncomfortably termed broken victuals had been given away during the winter, and a bewildering amount of begging women and children used to ask interviews with 'the Lady Winslow,' with stories that crumbled on investigation so as to make us recollect the Rector's character of Earlscombe.
However, Mr. Henderson came in the second week of Lent, and what our steps towards improvement introduced would have seemed almost as shocking to you youngsters, as what they displaced. For instance, a plain crimson cloth covered the altar, instead of the rags in the colours of the Winslow livery, presented, according to the queer old register, by the unfortunate Margaret. There was talk of velvet and the gold monogram, surrounded by rays, alternately straight and wavy, as in our London church, but this was voted 'unfit for a plain village church.' Still, the new hangings of pulpit, desk, and altar were all good in quality and colour, and huge square cushions were provided as essential to each. Moreover, the altar vessels were made somewhat more respectable,—all this being at my father's expense.
He also carried in the Vestry, though not without strong opposition from a dissenting farmer, that new linen and a fresh surplice should be provided by the parish, which surplice would have made at least six of such as are at present worn. The farmers were very jealous of the interference of the Squire in the Vestry—'what he had no call to,' and of church rates applied to any other object than the reward of birdslayers, as thus, in the register -
Hairy Wills, 1 score sprows heds 2d. Jems Brown, 1 poulcat 6d. Jarge Bell, 2 howls 6d.
It was several years before this appropriation of the church rates could be abolished. The year 1830, with a brand new squire and parson, was too ticklish a time for many innovations.
Hillside Church was the only one in the neighbourhood where Holy Week or Ascension Day had been observed in the memory of man. When we proposed going to church on the latter day the gardener asked my mother 'if it was her will to keep Thursday holy,' as if he expected its substitution for Sunday. Monthly Communions and Baptisms after the Second Lesson were viewed as 'not fit for a country church,' and every attempt at even more secular improvements was treated with the most disappointing distrust and aversion. When my father laid out the allotment grounds, the labourers suspected some occult design for his own profit, and the farmers objected that the gardens would be used as an excuse for neglecting their work and stealing their potatoes. Coal-club and clothing-club were regarded in like manner, and while a few took advantage of these offers in a grudging manner, the others viewed everything except absolute gifts as 'me-an' on our part, the principle of aid to self-help being an absolute novelty. When I look back to the notes in our journals of that date I see how much has been overcome.
Perhaps we listened more than was strictly wise to the revelations of Amos Bell, when he attended Emily and me on our expeditions with the donkey. Though living over the border of Hillside, he had a family of relations at Earlscombe, and for a time lodged with his grandmother there. When his shyness and lumpishness gave way, he proved so bright that Emily undertook to carry on his education. He soon had a wonderful eye for a wild flower, and would climb after it with the utmost agility; and when once his tongue was loosed, he became almost too communicative, and made us acquainted with the opinions of 'they Earlscoom folk' with a freedom not to be found in an elder or a native.
Moreover, he was the brightest light of the Sunday school which Mr. Henderson opened at once—for want of a more fitting place—in the disused north transept of the church. It was an uncouth, ill-clad crew which assembled on those dilapidated paving tiles. Their own grandchildren look almost as far removed from them in dress and civilisation as did my sister in her white worked cambric dress, silk scarf, huge Tuscan bonnet, and the little curls beyond the lace quilling round her bright face, far rosier than ever it had been in town. And what would the present generation say to the odd little contrivances in the way of cotton sun-bonnets, check pinafores, list tippets, and print capes, and other wonderful manufactures from the rag-bag, which were then grand prizes and stimulants?