Old Mr. Fordyce had long been talking of a round of visits among relations whom he had not seen for many years; and it was decided to send Ellen with him, chiefly, no doubt, to prevent difficulties about Griffith in the long vacation.
There was no embargo on the correspondence with my sister, and letters full of description came regularly, but how unlike they were to our journal. They were clear, intelligent, with a certain liveliness, but no ring of youthful joy, no echo of the heart, always as if under restraint. Griff was much disappointed. He had been on his good behaviour for two months, and expected his reward, and I could not here repeat all that he said about her parents when he found she was absent. Yet, after all, he got more pity and sympathy from Parson Frank than from any one else. That good man actually sent a message for him, when Emily was on honour to do no such thing. Poor Emily suffered much in consequence, when she would neither afford Griff a blank corner of her paper, nor write even a veiled message; while as to the letters she received and gave to him, 'what was the use,' he said, 'of giving him what might have been read aloud by the town-crier?'
'You don't understand, Griff; it is all dear Ellen's conscientiousness—'
'Oh, deliver me from such con-sci-en-tious-ness,' he answered, in a tone of bitter mimicry, and flung out of the room leaving Emily in tears.
He could not appreciate the nobleness of Ellen's self-command and the obedience which was the security of future happiness, but was hurt at what he thought weak alienation. One note of sympathy would have done much for Griff just then. I have often thought it over since, and come to the conclusion that Mrs. Fordyce was justified in the entire separation she brought about. No one can judge of the strength with which 'true love' has mastered any individual, nor how far change may be possible; and, on the other hand, unless there were full appreciation of Ellen's character, she might only have been looked on as -
'Puppet to a father's threat, Servile to a shrewish tongue.'
Yet, after all, Frank Fordyce was very kind to Griff, making himself as much of a medium of communication as he could consistently with his conscience, but of course not satisfying one who believed that the strength of love was to be proved not by obedience but disobedience.
Ellen's letters showed increasing anxiety about her grandfather, who was not favourably affected by the change of habits, consequent on a long journey, and staying in different houses. His return was fixed two or three times, and then delayed by slight attacks of illness, till at last he became anxious to get home, and set off about the end of September; but after sleeping a night at an inn at Warwick, he was too ill to proceed any farther. His old man-servant was with him; but poor Ellen went through a great deal of suspense and responsibility before her parents reached her. The attack was paralysis, and he never recovered the full powers of mind or body, though they managed to bring him back to Hillside—as indeed his restlessness longed for his native home. When once there he became calmer, but did not rally; and a second stroke proved fatal just before Easter. He was mourned alike by rich and poor, 'He WAS a gentleman,' said even Chapman, 'always the same to rich or poor, though he was one of they Fordys.'
My father wrote to summon both his elder sons to the funeral at Hillside, and in due time Clarence appeared by the coach, but alone. He had gone to Griffith's chambers to arrange about coming down together, but found my father's letter lying unopened on the table, and learnt that his brother was supposed to be staying at a villa in Surrey, where there were to be private theatricals. He had forwarded the letter thither, and it would still be possible to arrive in time by the night mail.
So entirely was Griff expected that the gig was sent to meet him at seven o'clock the next morning, but there was no sign of him. My father and Clarence went without him to the gathering, which showed how deeply the good old man was respected and loved.
It was the only funeral Clarence had attended except Miss Newton's hurried one, and his sensitive spirit was greatly affected. He had learnt reserve when amongst others, but I found that he had a strong foreboding of evil; he tossed and muttered in his sleep, and confessed to having had a wretched night of dreams, though he would not describe them otherwise than that he had seen the lady whose face he always looked on as a presage of evil.
Two days later the Morning Post gave a full account of the amateur theatricals at Bella Vista, the seat of Benjamin Bullock, Esquire, and the Lady Louisa Bullock; and in the list of dramatis personae, there figured Griffith Winslow, Esquire, as Captain Absolute, and the fair and accomplished Lady Peacock as Lydia Languish.
Amateur theatricals were much less common in those days than at present, and were held as the ne plus ultra of gaiety. Moreover, the Lady Louisa Bullock was noted for fashionable extravagance of the semi-reputable style; and there would have been vexation enough at Griffith's being her guest, even had not the performance taken place on the very day of the funeral of Ellen's grandfather, so as to be an outrage on decorum.
At the same time, there came a packet franked by a not very satisfactory peer, brother to Lady Louisa. My father threw a note over to Clarence, and proceeded to read a very properly expressed letter full of apologies and condolences for the Fordyces.
'He could not have got the letter in time' was my father's comment. 'When did you forward the letter? How was it addressed? Clarence, I say, didn't you hear?'
Clarence lifted up his face from his letter, so much flushed that my mother broke in—'What's the matter? A mistake in the post-town would account for the delay. Has he had the letter?'
'Not in time—eh?'
'I'm afraid,' and he faltered, 'he did.'
'Did he or did he not?' demanded my mother.
'What does he say?' exclaimed my father.
'Sir' (always an unpropitious beginning for poor Clarence), 'I should prefer not showing you.'
'Nonsense!' exclaimed my mother: 'you do no good by concealing it!'
'Let me see his letter,' said my father, in the voice there was no gainsaying, and absolutely taking it from Clarence. None of us will ever forget the tone in which he read it aloud at the breakfast- table.
'DEAR BILL—What possessed you to send a death's-head to the feast? The letter would have bitten no one in my chambers. A nice scrape I shall be in if you let out that your officious precision forwarded it. Of course at the last moment I could not upset the whole affair and leave Lydia to languish in vain. The whole thing went off magnificently. Keep counsel and no harm is done. You owe me that for sending on the letter.—Yours,
'J. G. W.'
Clarence had not read to the end when the letter was taken from him. Indeed to inclose such a note in a dispatch sure to be opened en famille was one of Griffith's haphazard proceedings, which arose from the present being always much more to him than the absent. Clarence was much shocked at hearing these last sentences, and exclaimed, 'He meant it in confidence, papa; I implore you to treat it as unread!'
My father was always scrupulous about private letters, and said, 'I beg your pardon, Clarence; I should not have forced it from you. I wish I had not seen it.'
My mother gave something between a snort and a sigh. 'It is right for us to know the truth,' she said, 'but that is enough. There is no need that they should know at Hillside what was Griffith's alternative.'
'I would not add a pang to that dear girl's grief,' said my father; 'but I see the Fordyces were right. I shall never do anything to bring these two together again.'
My mother chimed in with something about preferring Lady Peacock and the Bella Vista crew to Ellen and Hillside, which made us rush into the breach with incoherent defence.
'I know how it was,' said Clarence. 'His acting is capital, and of course these people could not spare him, nor understand how much it signified that he should be here. They make so much of him.'
'Who do?' asked my mother. 'Lady Peacock? How do you know? Have you been with them?'
'I have dined at Mr. Clarkson's,' Clarence avowed; and, on further pressure, it was extracted that Griffith—handsome, and with talents such as tell in society—was a general favourite, and much engrossed by people who found him an enlivenment and ornament to their parties. There had been little or nothing of late of the former noisy, boyish dissipation; but that the more fashionable varieties were getting a hold on him became evident under the cross- questioning to which Clarence had to submit.
My father said he felt like a party to a falsehood when he sent Griff's letter up to Hillside, and he indemnified himself by writing a letter more indignant—not than was just, but than was prudent, especially in the case of one little accustomed to strong censure. Indeed Clarence could not restrain a slight groan when he perceived that our mother was shut up in the study to assist in the composition. Her denunciations always outran my father's, and her pain showed itself in bitterness. 'I ought to have had the presence of mind to refuse to show the letter,' he said; 'Griff will hardly forgive me.'
Ellen looked very thin, and with a transparent delicacy of complexion. She had greatly grieved over her grandfather's illness and the first change in her happy home; and she must have been much disappointed at Griffith's absence. Emily dreaded her mention of the subject when they first met.
'But,' said my sister, 'she said no word of him. All she cared to tell me was of the talks she had with her grandfather, when he made her read his favourite chapters in the Bible; and though he had no memory for outside things, his thoughts were as beautiful as ever. Sometimes his face grew so full of glad contemplation that she felt quite awestruck, as if it were becoming like the face of an angel. It made her realise, she said, "how little the ups and downs of this life matter, if there can be such peace at the last." And, after all, I could not help thinking that it was better perhaps that Griff did not come. Any other sort of talk would have jarred on her just now, and you know he would never stand much of that.'
Much as we loved our Griff, we had come to the perception that Ellen was a treasure he could not esteem properly.
The Lester cousins, never remarkable for good taste, forced on her the knowledge of his employment. Her father could not refrain from telling us that her exclamation had been, 'Poor Griff, how shocked he must be! He was so fond of dear grandpapa. Pray, papa, get Mr. Winslow to let him know that I am not hurt, for I know he could not help it. Or may I ask Emily to tell him so?'
I wish Mrs. Fordyce would have absolved her from the promise not to mention Griff to us. That innocent reliance might have touched him, as Emily would have narrated it; but it only rendered my father more indignant, and more resolved to reserve the message till a repentant apology should come. And, alas! none ever came. Just wrath on a voiceless paper has little effect. There is reason to believe that Griff did not like the air of my father's letter, and never even read it. He diligently avoided Clarence, and the pain and shame his warm heart must have felt only made him keep out of reach.
CHAPTER XXXI—FACILIS DESCENSUS
'The slippery verge her feet beguiled; She tumbled headlong in.'
One of Griffith's briefest notes in his largest hand announced that he had accepted various invitations to country houses, for cricket matches, archery meetings, and the like; nor did he even make it clear where his address would be, except that he would be with a friend in Scotland when grouse-shooting began.
Clarence, however, came home for a brief holiday. He was startled at the first sight of Ellen. He said she was indeed lovelier than ever, with an added sweetness in her clear eyes and the wild rose flush in her delicate cheek; but that she looked as if she was being refined away to nothing, and was more than ever like the vision with the lamp.
Of course the Fordyces had not been going into society, though Ellen and Emily were as much together as before, helping one another in practising their school children in singing, and sharing in one another's studies and pursuits. There had been in the spring a change at Wattlesea; the old incumbent died, and the new one was well reported of as a very earnest hardworking man. He seemed to be provided with a large family, and there was no driving into Wattlesea without seeing members of it scattered about the place.
The Fordyces being anxious to show them attention without a regular dinner-party, decided on inviting all the family to keep Anne's ninth birthday, and Emily and Martyn were of course to come and assist at the entertainment.
It was on the morning of the day fixed that a letter came to me whose contents seemed to burn themselves into my brain. Martyn called across the breakfast-table, 'Look at Edward! Has any one sent you a young basilisk?'
'I wish it was,' I gasped out.
'Don't look so,' entreated Emily. 'Tell us! Is it Griff?'
'Not ill-hurt?' cried my mother. 'Oh no, no. Worse!' and then somehow I articulated that he was married; and Clarence exclaimed, 'Not the Peacock!' and at my gesture my father broke out. 'He has done for himself, the unhappy boy. A disgraceful Scotch marriage. Eh?'
'It was his sense of honour,' I managed to utter.
'Sense of fiddlestick!' said my poor father. 'Don't stop to excuse him. We've had enough of that! Let us hear.'
I cannot give a copy of the letter. It was so painful that it was destroyed; for there was a tone of bravado betraying his uneasiness, but altogether unbecoming. All that it disclosed was, that some one staying in the same house had paid insulting attentions to Lady Peacock; she had thrown herself on our brother's protection, and after interfering on her behalf, he had found that there was no means of sheltering her but by making her his wife. This had been effected by the assistance of the lady of the house where they had been staying; and Griffith had written to me two days later from Edinburgh, declaring that Selina had only to be known to be loved, and to overcome all prejudices.
'Prejudices,' said my father bitterly. 'Prejudices in favour of truth and honour.'
And my mother uttered the worst reproach of all, when in my agitation, I slipped and almost fell in rising—'Oh, my poor Edward! that I should have lived to think yours the least misfortune that has befallen my sons!'
'Nay, mother,' said Clarence, putting Martyn toward her, 'here is one to make up for us all.'
'Clarence,' said my father, 'your mother did not mean anything but that you and Edward are the comfort of our lives. I wish there were a chance of Griffith redeeming the past as you have done; but I see no hope of that. A man is never ruined till he is married.'
At that moment there was a step in the hall, a knock at the door, and there stood Mr. Frank Fordyce. He looked at us and said, 'It is true then.'
'To our shame and sorrow it is,' said my father. 'Fordyce, how can we look you in the face?'
'As my dear good friend, and my father's,' said the kind man, shaking him by the hand heartily. 'Do you think we could blame you for this youth's conduct? Stay'—for we young ones were about to leave the room. 'My poor girl knows nothing yet. Her mother luckily got the letter in her bedroom. We can't put off the Reynoldses, you know, so I came to ask the young people to come up as if nothing had happened, and then Ellen need know nothing till the day is over.'
'If I can,' said Emily.
'You can be capable of self-command, I hope,' said my mother severely, 'or you do not deserve to be called a friend.'
Such speeches might not be pleasant, but they were bracing, and we all withdrew to leave the elders to talk it over together, when, as I believe, kind Parson Frank was chiefly concerned to argue my parents out of their shame and humiliation.
Clarence told us what he knew or guessed; and we afterwards understood the matter to have come about chiefly through poor Griff's weakness of character, and love of amusement and flattery. The boyish flirtation with Selina Clarkson had never entirely died away, though it had been nothing more than the elder woman's bantering patronage and easy acceptance of the youth's equally gay, jesting admiration. It had, however, involved some raillery on his attachment to the little Methodistical country girl, and this gradually grew into jealousy of her—especially as Griff became more of a man, and a brilliant member of society. The detention from the funeral had been a real victory on the widow's part, and the few times when Clarence had seen them together he had been dismayed at the cavaliere serviente terms on which Griff seemed to stand; but his words of warning were laughed down. The rest was easy to gather. He had gone about on the round of visits almost as an appendage to Lady Peacock, till they came to a free and easy house, where her coquetry and love of admiration brought on one of those disputes which rendered his championship needful; and such defence could only have one conclusion, especially in Scotland, where hasty private marriages were still legal. What an exchange! Only had Griff ever comprehended the worth of his treasure?
Emily went as late as she could, that there might be the less chance of a tete-a-tete, in which she might be surprised into a betrayal of her secret: indeed she only started at last when Martyn's impatience had become intolerable.
What was our amazement when, much earlier than we expected, we saw Mr. Fordyce driving up in his phaeton, and heard the story he had to tell.
Emily's delay had succeeded in bringing her only just in time for the luncheon that was to be the children's dinner. There was a keen-looking, active, sallow clergyman, grizzled, and with an air of having seen much service; a pale, worn wife, with a gentle, sensible face; and a bewildering flock of boys and girls, all apparently under the command of a very brisk, effective-looking elder sister of fourteen or fifteen, who seemed to be the readiest authority, and to decide what and how much each might partake of, among delicacies, evidently rare novelties.
The day was late in August. The summer had broken; there had been rain, and, though fine, the temperature was fitter for active sports than anything else. Croquet was not yet invented, and, besides, most of the party were of the age for regular games at play. Ellen and Emily did their part in starting these—finding, however, that the Reynolds boys were rather rough, in spite of the objurgations of their sister, who evidently thought herself quite beyond the age for romps. The sports led them to the great home-field on the opposite slope of the ridge from our own. The new farm-buildings were on the level ground at the bottom to the right, where the declivity was much more gradual than to the left, which was very steep, and ended in furze bushes and low copsewood. It was voted a splendid place for hide-and-seek, and the game was soon in such full career that Ellen, who had had quite running enough, could fall out of it, and with her, the other two elder girls. Emily felt Fanny Reynolds' presence a sort of protection, 'little guessing what she was up to,' to use her own expression. Perhaps the girl had not earlier made out who Emily was, or she had been too much absorbed in her cares; but, as the three sat resting on a stump overlooking the hill, she was prompted by the singular inopportuneness of precocious fourteen to observe, 'I ought to have congratulated you, Miss Winslow.'
Emily gabbled out, 'Thank you, never mind,' hoping thus to put a stop to whatever might be coming; but there was no such good fortune. 'We saw it in the paper. It is your brother, isn't it?'
'What?' asked unsuspicious Ellen, thinking, no doubt, of some fresh glory to Griffith.
And before Emily could utter a word, if there were any she could have uttered, out it came. 'The marriage—John Griffith Winslow, Esquire, eldest son of John Edward Winslow of Chantry House, to Selina, relict of Sir Henry Peacock and daughter of George Clarkson, Esquire, Q.C. I didn't think it could be you at first, because you would have been at the wedding.'
Emily had not even time to meet Ellen's eyes before they were startled by a shriek that was not the merry 'whoop' and 'I spy' of the game, and, springing up, the girls saw little Anne Fordyce rushing headlong down the very steepest part of the slope, just where it ended in an extremely muddy pool, the watering-place of the cattle. The child was totally unable to stop herself, and so was Martyn, who was dashing after her. Not a word was said, though, perhaps, there was a shriek or two, but the elder sisters flew with one accord towards the pond. They also were some way above it, but at some distance off, so that the descent was not so perpendicular, and they could guard against over-running themselves. Ellen, perhaps from knowing the ground better, was far before the other two; but already poor little Anne had gone straight down, and fallen flat on her face in the water, Martyn after her, perhaps with a little more free will, for, though he too fell, he was already struggling to lift Anne up, and had her head above water, when Ellen arrived and dashed in to assist.
The pond began by being shallow, but the bottom sloped down into a deep hollow, and was besides covered several feet deep with heavy cattle-trodden mire and weeds, in which it was almost impossible to gain a footing, or to move. By the time Emily and Miss Reynolds had come to the brink, Ellen and Martyn were standing up in the water, leaning against one another, and holding poor little Anne's head up- -all they could do. Ellen called out, 'Don't! don't come in! Call some one! The farm! We are sinking in! You can't help! Call—'
The danger was really terrible of their sinking in the mud and weeds, and being sucked into the deep part of the pool, and they were too far in to be reached from the bank. Emily perceived this, and ran as she had never run before, happily meeting on the way with the gentlemen, who had been inspecting the new model farm-buildings, and had already taken alarm from the screams.
They found the three still with their heads above water, but no more, for every struggle to get up the slope only plunged them deeper in the horrible mud. Moreover, Fanny Reynolds was up to her ankles in the mud, holding by one of her brothers, but unable to reach Martyn. It seems she had had some idea of forming a chain of hands to pull the others out.
Even now the rescue was not too easy. Mr. Fordyce hurried in, and took Anne in his arms; but, even with his height and strength, he found his feet slipping away under him, and could only hand the little insensible girl to Mr. Reynolds, bidding him carry her at once to the house, while he lifted Martyn up only just in time, and Ellen clung to him. Thus weighted, he could not get out, till the bailiff and another man had brought some faggots and a gate that were happily near at hand, and helped him to drag the two out, perfectly exhausted, and Martyn hardly conscious. They both were carried to the Rectory,—Ellen by her father, Martyn by the foreman,—and they were met at the door by the tidings that little Anne was coming to herself.
Indeed, by the time Mr. Fordyce had put on dry clothes, all three were safe in warm beds, and quite themselves again, so that he trusted that no mischief was done; though he decided upon fetching my mother to satisfy herself about Martyn. However, a ducking was not much to a healthy fellow like Martyn, and my mother found him quite fit to dress himself in the clothes she brought, and to return home with her. Both the girls were asleep, but Ellen had had a shivering fit, and her mother was with her, and was anxious. Emily told her mother of Fanny Reynolds' unfortunate speech, and it was thought right to mention it. Mrs. Fordyce listened kindly, kissed Emily, and told her not to be distressed, for possibly it might turn out to have been the best thing for Ellen to have learnt the fact at such a moment; and, at any rate, it had spared her parents some doubt and difficulty as to the communication.
CHAPTER XXXII—WALY, WALY
'And am I then forgot, forgot? It broke the heart of Ellen!'
Clarence and Martyn walked over to Hillside the first thing the next morning to inquire for the two sisters. As to one, they were quickly reassured, for Anne was in the porch feeding the doves, and no sooner did she see them than out she flew, and was clinging round Martyn's neck, her hat falling back as she kissed him on both cheeks, with an eagerness that made him, as Clarence reported, turn the colour of a lobster, and look shy, not to say sheepish, while she exclaimed, ' Oh, Martyn! mamma says she never thanked you, for you really and truly did save my life, and I am so glad it was you— '
'It was not I, it was Ellen,' gruffly muttered Martyn.
'Oh yes! but papa says I should have been smothered in that horrid mud, before Ellen could get to me if you had not pulled me up directly.'
The elders came out by this time, and Clarence was able to get in his inquiry. Ellen had had a feverish night, and her chest seemed oppressed, but her mother did not think her seriously ill. Once she had asked, 'Is it true, what Fanny Reynolds said?' and on being answered, 'Yes, my dear, I am afraid it is,' she had said no more; and as the Fordyce habit of treating colds was with sedatives, her mother thought her scarcely awake to the full meaning of the tidings, and hoped to prevent her dwelling on them till she had recovered the physical shock. Having answered these inquiries, the two parents turned upon Martyn, who, in an access of shamefacedness, had crept behind Clarence and a great orange-tree, and was thence pulled out by Anne's vigorous efforts. The full story had come to light. The Reynolds' boys had grown boisterous as soon as the restraint of the young ladies' participation had been removed, and had, whether intentionally or not, terrified little Anne in the chases of hide-and-seek. Finally, one of them had probably been unable to withstand the temptation of seeing her timid nervous way of peeping and prying about; and had, without waiting to be properly found, leapt out of his lair with a roar that scared the little girl nearly out of her wits, and sent her flying, she knew not whither. Martyn was a few steps behind, only not holding her hand, because the other children had derided her for clinging to his protection. He had instantly seen where she was going, and shouted to her to stop and take care; but she was past attending to him, and he had no choice but to dart after her, seeing what was inevitable; while George Reynolds had sense to stop in time, and seek a safer descent. Had Martyn not been there to raise the child instantly from the stifling mud, her sister could hardly have been in time to save her.
Mrs. Fordyce tearfully kissed him; her husband called him a little hero, as if in joke, then gravely blessed him; and he looked, Clarence related, as if he had been in the greatest possible disgrace.
It was the second time that one of us had saved a life from drowning, but there was none of the exultation we had felt that time before in London. It was a much graver feeling, where the danger had really been greater, and the rescue had been of one so dear to us. It was tempered likewise by anxiety about our dear Ellen—ours, alas, no longer! She was laid up for several days, and it was thought better that she should not see Emily till she had recovered; but after a week had passed, her father drove over to discuss some plans for the Poor-Law arrangements, and begged my sister to go back in the carriage and spend the day with his daughter.
We brothers could now look forward to some real intelligence; we became restless; and in the afternoon Clarence and I set out with the donkey-chair on the woodland path to meet Emily. We gained more than we had hoped, for as we came round one of the turns in the winding path, up the hanging beech-wood, we came on the two friends- -Ellen, a truly Una-like figure, in her white dress with her black scarf making a sable stole. Perhaps we betrayed some confusion, for there was a bright flush on her cheeks as she came towards us, and, standing straight up, said, 'Clarence, Edward, I am so glad you are here; I wanted to see you. I wanted—to say—I know he could not help it. It was his generosity—helping those that need it; and— and—I'm not angry. And though that's all over, you'll always be my brothers, won't you?'
She held her outstretched hands to us both. I could not help it, I drew her down, and kissed her brow; Clarence clasped her other hand and held it to his lips, but neither of us could utter a word.
She turned back and went quietly away through the wood, while Emily sank down under the beech-tree in a paroxysm of grief. You may see which it was, for Clarence cut out 'E. M. F., 1835' upon the bark. He soothed and caressed poor Emily as in old nursery troubles; and presently she told us that it would be long before we saw that dear one again, for Mrs. Fordyce was going to take her away on the morrow.
Mrs. Fordyce had seen Emily in private, before letting her go to Ellen. There was evidently a great wish to be kind. Mrs. Fordyce said she could never forget what she owed to us all, and could not think of blaming any of us. 'But,' she said, 'you are a sensible girl, Emily,'—'how I hate being called a sensible girl,' observed the poor child, in parenthesis,—'and you must see that it is desirable not to encourage her to indulge in needless discussion after she once understands the facts.' She added that she thought a cessation of present intercourse would be wise till the sore was in some degree healed. She had not been satisfied about her daughter's health for some time, and meant to take her to Bath the next day to consult a physician, and then decide what would be best. 'And, my dear,' she said, 'if there should be a slackening of correspondence, do not take it as unkindness, but as a token that my poor child is recovering her tone. Do not discontinue writing to her, but be guarded, and perhaps less rapid, in replying.'
It was for her friendship that poor Emily wept so bitterly—the first friendship that had been an enthusiasm to her; looking at it as a cruel injustice that Griff's misdoing should separate them. The prediction that all might be lived down and forgotten was too vague and distant to be much consolation; indeed, we were too young to take it in.
We had it all over again in a somewhat grotesque form when, at another turn in the wood, we came upon Martyn and Anne, loaded with treasures from their robbers' cave, some of which were bestowed in my chair, the others carried off between Anne and her not very willing nursery-maid.
Anne kissed us all round, and augured cheerfully that she should lay up a store of shells and rocks by the seaside to make 'a perfect Robinson Crusoe cavern,' she said, 'and then Clarence can come and be the Spaniards and the savages. But that won't be till next summer,' she added, shaking her head. 'I shall get Ellen to tell Emily what shells I find, and then she can tell Martyn; for mamma says girls never write to boys unless they are their brothers! And now Martyn will never be my brother,' she added ruefully.
'You will always be our darling,' I said.
'That's not the same as your sister,' she answered. However, amid auguries of the combination of robbers and Robinson Crusoe, the parting was effected, and Anne borne off by the maid; while we had Martyn on our hands, stamping about and declaring that it was very hard that because Griff chose to be a faithless, inconstant ruffian, all his pleasure and comfort in life should be stopped! He said such outrageous things that, between scolding him and laughing at him, Emily had been somewhat cheered by the time we reached the house.
My father had written to Griffith, in his first displeasure, curt wishes that he might not have reason to repent of the step he had taken, though he had not gone the right way to obtain a blessing. As it was not suitable that a man should be totally dependent on his wife, his allowance should be continued; but under present circumstances he must perceive that he and Lady Peacock could not be received at Chantry House. We were shown the letter, and thought it terribly brief and cold; but my mother said it would be weak to offer forgiveness that was not sought, and my father was specially exasperated at the absence of all contrition as to the treatment of Ellen. All Griff had vouchsafed on that head was—the rupture had been the Fordyces' doing; he was not bound. As to intercourse with him, Clarence and I might act as we saw fit.
'Only,' said my father, as Clarence was leaving home, 'I trust you not to get yourself involved in this set.'
Clarence gave a queer smile, 'They would not take me as a gift, papa.'
And as my father turned from the hall door, he laid his hand on his wife's arm, and said, 'Who would have told us what that young fellow would be to us.'
She sighed, and said, 'He is not twenty-three; he has plenty of money, and is very fond of Griff.'
CHAPTER XXXIII—THE RIVER'S BANK
'And my friend rose up in the shadows, And turned to me, "Be of good cheer," I said faintly, For He called thee.'
Mr. Fordyce waited at Hillside till after Sunday, and then went to Bath to hear the verdict of the physician. He returned as much depressed as it was in his sanguine nature to be, for great delicacy of the lungs had been detected; and to prevent the recent chill from leaving permanent injury, Ellen must have a winter abroad, and warm sea or mountain air at once. Whether the disease were constitutional and would have come on at all events no one could tell.
Consumption was much less understood half a century ago; codliver oil was unknown; and stethoscopes were new inventions, only used by the more advanced of the faculty. The only escape poor Parson Frank had from accepting the doom was in disbelieving that a thing like a trumpet could really reveal the condition of the chest. Moreover, Mrs. Fordyce had had a brother who had, under the famous cowhouse cure, recovered enough to return home, and be killed by the upsetting of a stage coach.
Mrs. Fordyce took her daughter to Lyme, and waited there till her husband had found a curate and made all arrangements. It must have been very inconvenient not to come home; but, no doubt, she wanted to prevent any more partings. Then they went abroad, travelling slowly, and seeing all the sights that came in their way, to distract Ellen's thoughts. She was not allowed to hear what ailed her; but believed her languor and want of interest in everything to be the effect of the blow she had received, struggling to exert herself, and to enter gratefully into the enjoyments provided for her. She was not prevented from writing to Emily; indeed, no one liked to hinder anything she wished, but they were guide-book letters, describing all she saw as a kind of duty, but scarcely concealing the trouble it was to look. Such sentences would slip out as 'This is a nice quiet place, and I am happy to say there is nothing that one ought to see.' Or, 'I sat in the cathedral at Lucerne while the others were going round. The organ was playing, and it was such rest!' Or, again, after a day on the Lago di Como, 'It was glorious, and if you and Edward were here, perhaps the beauty would penetrate my sluggish soul!'
Ellen's sluggish soul!—when we remembered her keen ecstasy at the Valley of Rocks.
Those letters were our chief interest in an autumn which seemed dreary to us, in spite of friendly visitors; for had not our family hope and joy been extinguished? There was no direct communication with Griffith after his unpleasant reply to my father's letter; but Clarence saw the newly married pair on their return to Lady Peacock's house in London, and reported that they were very kind and friendly to him, and gave him more invitations than he could accept. Being cross-examined when he came home for Christmas, he declared his conviction that Lady Peacock had married Griff entirely from affection, and that he had been—well—flattered into it. They seemed very fond of each other now, and were launching out into all sorts of gaieties; but though he did not tell my father, he confided to me that he feared that Griffith had been disappointed in the amount of fortune at his wife's disposal.
It was at that Christmas time, one night, having found an intrusive cat upon my bed, Clarence carried her out at the back door close to his room, and came back in haste and rather pale. 'It is quite true about the lady and the light being seen out of doors,' he said in an awe-stricken voice, 'I have just seen her flit from the mullion room to the ruin.'
We only noted the fact in that ghost-diary of ours—we told nobody, and looked no more. We already believed that these appearances on the lawn must be the cause that every window, up to the attics on the garden side of the house, were so heavily shuttered and barred that there was no opening them without noise. Indeed, those on the ground floor had in addition bells attached to them. No doubt the former inhabitants had done their best to prevent any one from seeing or inquiring into what was unacknowledged and unaccountable. It might be only a coincidence, but we could not help remarking that we had seen and heard nothing of her during the engagement which might have united the two families; though, of course, it would be ridiculous to suppose her cognisant of it, like the White Lady of Avenel, dancing for joy at Mary's marriage with Halbert Glendinning.
The Fordyces had settled at Florence, where they suffered a great deal more from cold than they would have done at Hillside; and there was such a cessation of Ellen's letters that Emily feared that Mrs. Fordyce had attained her wish and separated the friends effectually. However, Frank Fordyce beguiled his enforced leisure with long letters to my father on home business, Austrian misgovernment, and the Italian Church and people, full of shrewd observations and new lights; and one of these ended thus, 'My poor lassie has been in bed for ten days with a severe cold. She begs me to say that she has begun a letter to Emily, and hopes soon to finish it. We had thought her gaining ground, but she is sadly pulled down. Fiat voluntas.'
The letter, which had been begun, never came; but, after three long weeks, there was one from the dear patient herself, mentioning her illness, and declaring that it was so comfortable to be allowed to be tired, and to go nowhere and see nothing except the fragment of beautiful blue sky, and the corner of a campanile, and the flowers Anne brought in daily.
As soon as she could be moved, they took her to Genoa, where she revived enough to believe that she should be well if she were at home again, and to win from her parents a promise to take her to Hillside as soon as the spring winds were over. So anxious was she that, as soon as there was any safety in travelling, the party began moving northwards, going by sea to Marseilles to avoid the Corniche, so early in the year. There were many fluctuations, and it was only her earnest yearning for home and strong resolution that could have made her parents persevere; but at last they were at Hillside, just after Whitsuntide, in the last week of May.
Frank Fordyce walked over to see us on the very evening after their arrival. He was much altered, his kindly handsome face looked almost as if he had gone through an illness; and, indeed, apart from all his anxiety and sorrow, he had pined in foreign parts for his human flock, as well as his bullocks and his turnips. He had also read, thought, and observed a great deal, and had left his long boyhood behind him, during a space for study and meditation such as he had never had before.
He was quite hopeless of his daughter's recovery, and made no secret of it. In passing through London the best advice had been taken, but only to obtain the verdict that the case was beyond all skill, and that it was only a matter of weeks, when all that could be done was to give as much gratification as possible. The one thing that Ellen did care about was to be at home—to have Emily with her, and once more see her school children, her church, and her garden. Tired as she was she had sprung up in the carriage at the first glimpse of Hillside spire, and had leant forward at the window, nodding and smiling her greetings to all the villagers.
She had been taken at once to her room and her bed, but her father had promised to beg Emily to come up by noon on the morrow. Then he sat talking of local matters, not able to help showing what infinite relief it was to him to be at home, and what music to his ears was the Somersetshire dialect and deep English voice 'after all those thin, shrill, screeching foreigners.'
Poor Emily! It was in mingled grief and gladness that she set off the next day, with the trepidation of one to whom sickness and decay were hitherto unknown. When she returned, it was in a different mood, unable to believe the doctors could be right, and in the delight of having her own bright, sweet Ellen back again, all herself. They had talked, but more of home and village than of foreign experiences; and though Ellen did not herself assist, she had much enjoyed watching the unpacking of the numerous gifts which had cost a perfect fortune at the Custom House. No one seemed forgotten—villagers, children, servants, friends. Some of these tokens are before me still. The Florentine mosaic paper-weight she brought me presses this very sheet; the antique lamp she gave my father is on the mantelpiece; Clarence's engraving of Raffaelle's St. Michael hangs opposite to me on the wall. Most precious in our eyes was the collection of plants, dried and labelled by herself, which she brought to Emily and me—poor mummies now, but redolent of undying affection. Her desire was to bestow all her keepsakes with her own hands, and in most cases she actually did so—a few daily, as her strength served her. The little figures in costume, coloured prints, Swiss carvings, French knicknacks, are preserved in many a Hillside cottage as treasured relics of 'our young lady.' Many years later, Martyn recognised a Hillside native in a back street in London by a little purple-blue picture of Vesuvius, and thereby reached the soft spot in a nearly dried-up heart.
So bright and playful was the dear girl over all her old familiar interests that we inexperienced beings believed not only that the wound to her affections was healed, but that she either did not know or did not realise the sentence that had been pronounced on her; but when this was repeated to her mother, it was met by a sad smile and the reply that we only saw her in her best hours. Still, through the summer, it was impossible to us to accept the truth; she looked so lovely, was so cheerful, and took such delight in all that was about her.
With the first cold, however, she seemed to shrivel up, and the bad nights extended into the days. Emily ascribed the change to the lack of going out into the air, and always found reasons for the increased languor and weakness; till at last there came a day when my poor little sister seemed as if the truth had broken upon her for the first time, when Ellen talked plainly to her of their parting, and had asked us both, 'her dear brother and sister,' to be with her at her Communion on All Saints' Day.
She had written a little letter to Clarence, begging his forgiveness for having cut him, and treated him with the scorn which, I believe, was the chief fault that weighed upon her conscience; and, hearing my father's voice in the house, she sent a message to beg him to come and see her in her mother's dressing-room—that very window where I had first heard her voice, refusing to come down to 'those Winslows.' She had sent for him to entreat him to forgive Griffith and recall the pair to Chantry House. 'Not now,' she said, 'but when I am gone.'
My father could deny her nothing, though he showed that the sight of her made the entreaty all the harder to him; and she pleaded, 'But you know this was not his doing. I never was strong, and it had begun before. Only think how sad it would have been for him.'
My father would have promised anything with that wasted hand on his, those fervent eyes gazing on him, and he told her he would have given his pardon long ago, if it had been sought, as it never had been.
'Ah! perhaps he did not dare!' she said. 'Won't you write when all this is over, and then you will be one family again as you used to be?'
He promised, though he scarcely knew where Griffith was. Clarence, however, did. He had answered Ellen's letter, and it had made him ask for a few days' leave of absence. So he came down on the Saturday, and was allowed a quarter of an hour beside Ellen's sofa in the Sunday evening twilight. He brought away the calm, rapt expression I had sometimes seen on his face at church, and Ellen made a special entreaty that he might share the morrow's feast.
There are some things that cannot be written of, and that was one. Still we had not thought the end near at hand, though on Tuesday morning a message was sent that Ellen was suffering and exhausted, and could not see Emily. It was a wild, stormy day, with fierce showers of sleet, and we clung to the hope that consideration for my sister had prompted the message. In the afternoon Clarence battled with a severe gale, made his way to Hillside, and heard that the weather affected the patient, and that there was much bodily distress. For one moment he saw her father, who said in broken accents that we could only pray that the spirit might be freed without much more suffering, 'though no doubt it is all right.'
Before daylight, before any one in the house was up, Clarence was mounting the hill in the gusts that had done their work on the trees and were subsiding with the darkness. And just as he was beginning the descent, as the sun tipped the Hillside steeple with light, he heard the knell, and counted the twenty-one for the years of our Ellen—for ours she will always be.
'Somehow,' he told me, 'I could not help taking off my hat and giving thanks for her, and then all the drops on all the boughs began sparkling, and there was a hush on all around as if she were passing among the angels, and a thrush broke out into a regular song of jubilee!'
CHAPTER XXXIV—NOT IN VAIN
'Then cheerly to your work again, With hearts new braced and set To run untired love's blessed race, As meet for those who face to face Over the grave their Lord have met.'
That dying request could not but be held sacred, and overtures were made to Griffith, who returned an odd sort of answer, friendly and affectionate, but rather as if my father were the offending party in need of forgiveness. He and his wife were obliged for the invitation, but could not accept it, as they had taken a house near Melton-Mowbray for the hunting season, and were entertaining friends.
In some ways it was disappointing, in others it was a relief, not to have the restraint of Lady Peacock's presence during the last days we were to have with the Fordyces. For a fresh loss came upon us. Beachharbour was a fishing-village on the north-western coast, which, within the previous decade, had sprung into importance, on the one hand as a fashionable resort, on the other as a minor port for colliers. The living was wretchedly poor, and had been held for many years by one of the old inferior stamp of clergy, scarcely superior in habits or breeding to the farmers, and only outliving the scandals of his youth to fall into a state of indolent carelessness. It was in the gift of a child, for whom Sir Horace Lester was trustee, and that gentleman had written, about a fortnight before Ellen's death, to consult Mr. Fordyce on its disposal, declaring the great difficulties and deficiencies of the place, which made it impossible to offer it to any one without considerable private means, and also able to attract and improve the utterly demoralised population. He ended, almost in joke, by saying, 'In fact, I know no one who could cope with the situation but yourself; I wish you could find me your own counterpart, or come yourself in earnest. It is just the air that suits my sister— bracing sea-breezes; the parsonage, though a wretched place, is well situated, and she would be all the stronger; but in poor Ellen's state there is no use in talking of it, and besides I know you are wedded to your fertile fields and Somersetshire clowns.'
That letter (afterwards shown to us) had worked on Mr. Fordyce's mind during those mournful days. He was still young enough to leave behind him Parson Frank and the 'squarson' habits of Hillside in which he had grown up; and the higher and more spiritual side of his nature had been fostered by the impressions of the last year. He was conscious, as he said, that his talk had been overmuch of bullocks, and that his farm had engrossed him more than he wished should happen again, though a change would be tearing himself up by the roots; and as to his own people at Hillside, the curate, an active young man, had well supplied his place, and, in his TRULY humble opinion, though by no means in theirs, introduced several improvements even in that model parish.
What had moved him most, however, was a conversation he had had with Ellen, with whom during this last year he had often held deep and serious counsel, with a growing reverence on his side. He had read her uncle's letter to her, and to his great surprise found that she looked on it as a call. Devotedly fond as she herself was of Hillside, she could see that her father's abilities were wasted on so small a field, in a manner scarcely good for himself, and she had been struck with the greater force of his sermons when preaching to educated congregations abroad. If no one else could or would take efficient charge of these Beachharbour souls, she could see that it would weigh on his conscience to take comparative ease in his own beloved meadows, among a flock almost his vassals. Moreover, she relieved his mind about her mother. She had discovered, what the good wife kept out of sight, that the north-country woman never could entirely have affinities with the south, and she had come to the conclusion that Mrs. Fordyce's spirits would be heavily tried by settling down at Hillside in the altered state of things.
After this talk, Mr. Fordyce had suggested a possible incumbent to his brother-in-law, but left the matter open; and when Sir Horace came down to the funeral, it was more thoroughly discussed; and, as soon as Mrs. Fordyce saw that departure would not break her husband's heart, she made no secret of the way that both her opinion and her inclinations lay. She told my mother that she had always believed her own ill-health was caused by the southern climate, and that she hoped that Anne would grow up stronger than her sister in the northern breezes.
Poor little Anne! Of all the family, to her the change was the greatest grief. The tour on the Continent had been a dull affair to her; she was of the age to weary of long confinement in the carriage and in strange hotels, and too young to appreciate 'grown-up' sights. Picture-galleries and cathedrals were only a drag to her, and if the experiences that were put into Rosella's mouth for the benefit of her untravelled sisters could have been written down, they would have been as unconventional as Mark Twain's adventures. Rosella went through the whole tour, and left a leg behind in the hinge of a door, but in compensation brought home a Paris bonnet and mantle. She seemed to have been her young mistress's chief comfort, next to an occasional game of play with her father, or a walk, looking in at the shop windows and watching marionettes, or, still better, the wonderful sports of brown-legged street children, without trying to make her speak French or Italian—in her eyes one of the inflictions of the journey, in those of her elders the one benefit she might gain. She had missed the petting to which she had been accustomed from her grandfather and from all of us; and she had absolutely counted the days till she could get home again, and had fallen into dire disgrace for fits of crying when Ellen's weakness caused delays. Martyn's holidays had been a time of rapture to her, for there was no one to attend much to her at home, and she was too young to enter into the weight of anxiety; so the two had run as wild together as a gracious well-trained damsel of ten and a fourteen-year-old boy with tender chivalry awake in him could well do. To be out of the way was all that was asked of her for the time, and all old delights, such as the robbers' cave, were renewed with fresh zest.
'It was the sweetest and the last.'
And though Martyn was gone back to school, the child felt the wrench from home most severely. As she told me on one of those sorrowful days, 'She did think she had come back to live at dear, dear little Hillside all the days of her life.' Poor child, we became convinced that this vehement attachment to Griffith's brothers was one factor in Mrs. Fordyce's desire to make a change that should break off these habits of intimacy and dependence.
Pluralities had not become illegal, and Frank Fordyce, being still the chief landholder in Hillside, and wishing to keep up his connection with his people, did not resign the rectory, though he put the curate into the house, and let the farm. Once or twice a year he came to fulfil some of a landlord's duties, and was as genial and affectionate as ever, but more and more absorbed in the needs of Beachharbour, and unconsciously showing his own growth in devotion and activity; while he brought his splendid health and vigour, his talent, his wealth, and, above all, his winning charm of manner and address, to that magnificent work at Beachharbour, well known to all of you; though, perhaps, you never guessed that the foundation of all those churches and their grand dependent works of piety, mercy, and beneficence was laid in one young girl's grave. I never heard of a fresh achievement there without remembering how the funeral psalm ends with -
'Prosper Thou the work of our hands upon us, O prosper Thou our handiwork.'
And Emily? Her drooping after the loss of her friend was sad, but it would have been sadder but for the spirit Ellen had infused. We found the herbs to heal our woe round our pathway, though the first joyousness of life had departed. The reports Mr. Henderson and the Hillside curate brought from Oxford were great excitements to us, and we thought and puzzled over church doctrine, and tried to impart it to our scholars. We I say, for Henderson had made me take a lads' class, which has been the chief interest of my life. Even the roughest were good to their helpless teacher, and some men, as gray- headed as myself, still come every Sunday to read with Mr. Edward, and are among the most faithful friends of my life.
CHAPTER XXXV—GRIFF'S BIRD
'Shall such mean little creatures pretend to the fashion? Cousin Turkey Cock, well may you be in a passion.'
The Peacock at Home.
It was not till the second Christmas after dear Ellen Fordyce's death that my eldest brother brought his wife and child to Chantry House, after an urgent letter to Lady Peacock from my mother, who yearned for a sight of Griffith's boy.
I do not wish to dwell on that visit. Selina, or Griff's bird, as Martyn chose to term her, was certainly handsome and stylish; but her complexion had lost freshness and delicacy, and the ladies said her colour was rouge, and her fine figure due to other female mysteries. She meant to be very gracious, and patronised everybody, especially Emily, who, she said, would be quite striking if not sacrificed by her dress, and whom she much wished to take to London, engaging to provide her with a husband before the season was over, not for a moment believing my mother's assurance that it would be a trial to us all whenever we had to resign our Emily. Nay, she tried to condole with the poor moped family slave, and was received with such hot indignation as made her laugh, for, to do her justice, she was good-natured and easy-tempered. However, I saw less of her than did the others, for I believe she thought the sight of me made her ill. Griff, poor old fellow, was heartily glad to be with us again, but quite under her dominion. He had lost his glow of youth and grace of figure, his complexion had reddened, and no one would have guessed him only a year older than Clarence, whose shoulders did indeed reveal something of the desk, but whose features, though pale, were still fair and youthful. The boy was another Clarence, not so much in compliment to his godfather as because it was the most elegant name in the family, and favoured an interesting belief, current among his mother's friends, that the king had actually stood sponsor to the uncle. Poor little man, his grandmother shut herself into the bookroom and cried, after her first sight of him. He was a wretched, pinched morsel of humanity, though mamma and Emily detected wonderful resemblances; I never saw them, but then he inherited his mother's repulsion towards me, and roared doubly at the sight of me. My mother held that he was the victim of Selina's dissipations and mismanagement of herself and him, and gave many matronly groans at his treatment by the smart, flighty nurse, who waged one continual warfare with the household.
Accustomed to absolute supremacy in domestic matters, it was very hard for my mother to have her counsels and experience set at naught, and, if she appealed to Griff, to find her notions treated with the polite deference he might have shown to a cottage dame.
A course of dinner-parties could not hinder her ladyship from finding Chantry House insufferably dull, 'always like Sunday;' and, when she found that we were given to Saints' Day services, her pity and astonishment knew no bounds. 'It was all very well for a poor object like Edward,' she held, 'but as to Mr. Winslow and Clarence, did they go for the sake of example? Though, to be sure, Clarence might be a Papist any day.'
Popery, instead of Methodism, was just beginning to be the bugbear set up for those whom the world held to be ultra-religious, and my mother was so far disturbed at our interest in what was termed Oxford theology that the warning would have alarmed her if it had come from any other quarter. However, Lady Peacock was rather fond of Clarence, and entertained him with schemes for improving Chantry House when it should have descended to Griffith. The mullion rooms were her special aversion, and were all to be swept away, together with the vaultings and the ruin—'enough to give one the blues, if there were nothing else,' she averred.
We really felt it to the credit of our country that Sir George Eastwood sent an invitation to an early dance to please his young daughters; and for this our visitors prolonged their stay. My mother made Clarence go, that she might have some one to take care of her and Emily, since Griff was sure to be absorbed by his lady. Emily had not been to a ball since those gay days in London with Ellen. She shrank back from the contrast, and would have begged off; but she was told that she must submit; and though she said she felt immeasurably older than at that happy time, I believe she was not above being pleased with the pale pink satin dress and wreath of white jessamine, which my father presented to her, and in which, according to Martyn, she beat 'Griff's bird all to shivers.'
Clarence had grown much less bashful and embarrassed since the Tooke affair had given him a kind of position and a sense of not being a general disgrace. He really was younger in some ways at five-and- twenty than at eighteen; he enjoyed dancing, and especially enjoyed the compliments upon our sister, whom in our usual fashion we viewed as the belle of the ball. He was standing by my fire, telling me the various humours of the night, when a succession of shrieks ran through the house. He dashed away to see what was the matter, and returned, in a few seconds, saying that Selina had seen some one in the garden, and neither she nor mamma would be satisfied without examination—'though, of course, I know what it must be,' he added, as he drew on his coat.
'Bill, are you coming?' said Griff at the door. 'You needn't, if you don't like it. I bet it is your old friend.'
'I'm coming! I'm coming! I'm sure it is,' shouted Martyn from behind, with the inconsistent addition, 'I've got my gun.'
'Enough to dispose of any amount of robbers or phantoms either,' observed Griff as they went forth by the back door, reinforced by Amos Bell with a lantern in one hand and a poker in the other.
My father was fortunately still asleep, and my mother came down to see whether I was frightened.
She said she had no patience with Selina, and had left her to Emily and her maid; but, before many words had been spoken, they all came creeping down after her, feeling safety in numbers, or perhaps in her entire fearlessness. The report of a gun gave us all a shock, and elicited another scream or two. My mother, hoping that no one was hurt, hastened into the hall, but only to meet Griff, hurrying in laughing to reassure us with the tidings that it was only Martyn, who had shot the old sun-dial by way of a robber; and he was presently followed by the others, Martyn rather crestfallen, but arguing with all his might that the sun-dial was exactly like a man; and my mother hurried every one off upstairs without further discussion.
Clarence was rather white, and when Martyn demanded, 'Do you really think it was the ghost? Fancy her selection of the bird!' he gravely answered, 'Martyn, boy, if it were, it is not a thing to speak of in that tone. You had better go to bed.'
Martyn went off, somewhat awed. Clarence was cold and shivering, and stood warming himself. He was going to wind up his watch, but his hand shook, and I did it for him, noting the hour—twenty minutes past one.
It appeared that Selina, on going upstairs, recollected that she had left her purse in Griff's sitting-room before going to dress, and had gone in quest of it. She heard strange shouts and screams outside, and, going to one of the old windows, where the shutters were less unmanageable than elsewhere, she beheld a woman rushing towards the house pursued by at least a couple of men. Filled with terror she had called out, and nearly fainted in Griff's arms.
'It agrees with all we have heard before,' said Clarence, 'the very day and hour!'
'As Martyn said, the person is strange.'
'Villagers, less concerned, have seen the like,' he said; 'and, indeed, all unconsciously poor Selina has cut away the hope of redress,' he sighed. 'Poor, restless spirit! would that I could do anything for her.'
'Let me ask, do you ever see her now?'
'N-no, I suppose not; but whenever I am anxious or worried, the trouble takes her form in my dreams.'
Lady Peacock had soon extracted the ghost story from her husband, and, though she professed to be above the vulgar folly of belief in it, her nerves were so upset, she said, that nothing would have induced her to sleep another night in the house. The rational theory on this occasion was that one of the maids must have stolen out to join in the Christmas entertainment at the Winslow Arms, and been pursued home by some tipsy revellers; but this explanation was not productive of goodwill between the mother and daughter-in-law, since mamma had from the first so entirely suspected Selina's smart nurse as actually to have gone straight to the nursery on the plea of seeing whether the baby had been frightened. The woman was found asleep—apparently so—said my mother, but all her clothes were in an untidy heap on the floor, which to my mother was proof conclusive that she had slipped into the house in the confusion, and settled herself there. Had not my mother with her own eyes watched from the window her flirtations with the gardener, and was more evidence requisite to convict her? Mamma entertained the hope that her proposal would be adopted of herself taking charge of her grandson, and fattening his poor little cheeks on our cows' milk, while the rest of the party continued their round of visits.
Lady Peacock, however, treated it as a personal imputation that HER nurse should be accused instead of any servant of Mrs. Winslow's own, though, as Griff observed, not only character, but years and features might alike acquit them of any such doings; but even he could not laugh long, for it was no small vexation to him that such offence should have arisen between his mother and wife. Of course there was no open quarrel—my mother had far too much dignity to allow it to come to that—but each said in private bitter things of the other, and my lady's manner of declining to leave her baby at Chantry House was almost offensive.
Poor Griffith, who had been growing more like himself every day, tried in vain to smooth matters, and would have been very glad to leave his child to my mother's management, though, of course, he acquitted the nurse of the midnight adventure. He privately owned to us that he had no opinion of the woman, but he defended her to my mother, in whose eyes this was tantamount to accusing her own respectable maids, since it was incredible that any rational person could accept the phantom theory.
Gladly would he have been on better terms, for he had had to confess that his wife's fortune had turned out to be much less than common report had stated, or than her style of living justified, and that his marriage had involved him in a sea of difficulties, so that he had to beg for a larger allowance, and for assistance in paying off debts.
The surrender of the London house and of some of the chief expenses were made conditions of such favours, and Griffith had assented gratefully when alone with his father; but after an interview with his wife, demonstrations were made that it was highly economical to have a house in town, and horses, carriages, and servants and that any change would be highly derogatory to the heir of Earlscombe and the sacred wishes of the late Sir Henry Peacock.
In fact, it was impressed on us that we were mere homely, countrified beings, who could not presume to dictate to her ladyship, but who had ill requited her condescension in deigning to beam upon us.
CHAPTER XXXVI—SLACK WATER
'O dinna look, ye prideful queen, on a' aneath your ken, For he wha seems the farthest BUT aft wins the farthest BEN, And whiles the doubie of the schule tak's lead of a' the rest: The birdie sure to sing is the gorbal of the nest.
'The cauld, grey, misty morn aft brings a sunny summer day; The tree wha's buds are latest is longest to decay; The heart sair tried wi' sorrow still endures the sternest test: The birdie sure to sing is the gorbal of the nest.
'The wee wee stern that glints in heaven may be a lowin' sun, Though like a speck of light it seem amid the welkin dun; The humblest sodger on the field may win a warrior's crest: The birdie sure to sing is the gorbal of the nest.'
The wickedness of the nurse was confirmed in my mother's eyes when the doom on the first-born of the Winslows was fulfilled, and the poor little baby, Clarence, succumbed to a cold on the chest caught while his nurse was gossiping with a guardsman.
He was buried in London. 'It was better for Selina to get those things over as quickly as possible,' said Griff; but Clarence saw that he suffered much more than his wife would let him show to her. 'It is so bad for him to dwell on it,' she said. 'You see. I never let myself give way.'
And she was soon going out, nearly as usual, till their one other infant came to open its eyes only for a few hours on this troublesome world, and owe its baptism to Clarence's exertions. My mother, who was in London just after, attending on the good old Admiral's last illness, was greatly grieved and disgusted with all she heard and saw of the young pair, and that was not much. She felt their disregard of her uncle as heartless, or rather as insulting, on Selina's part, and weak on Griff's; and on all sides she heard of their reckless extravagance, which made her forebode the worst.
All these disappointments much diminished my father's pleasure and interest in his inheritance. He had little heart to build and improve, when his eldest son's wife made no secret of her hatred to the place, or to begin undertakings only to be neglected by those who came after; and thus several favourite schemes were dropped, or prevented by Griffith's applications for advances.
At last there was a crisis. At the end of the second season after their visit to us, Clarence sent a hasty note, begging my father to join him in averting an execution in Griffith's house. I cannot record the particulars, for just at that time I had a long low fever, and did not touch my diary for many weeks; nor indeed did I know much about the circumstances, since my good nurses withheld as much as possible, and would not let me talk about what they believed to make me worse. Nor can I find any letters about it. I believe they were all made away with long ago, and thus I only know that my father hurried up to town, remained for a fortnight, and came back looking ten years older. The house in London had been given up, and he had offered a vacant one of our own, near home, to Griff to retrench in, but Selina would not hear of it, insisting on going abroad.
This was a great grief to him and to us all. There was only one side of our lives that was not saddened. Our old incumbent had died about six months after the Fordyces had gone, and Mr. Henderson had gladly accepted the living where the parsonage had been built. The lady to whom he had been so long engaged was a great acquisition. Her home had been at Oxford; and she was as thoroughly imbued with the spirit that there prevailed as was the Hillside curate. She talked to us of Littlemore, and of the sermons there and at St. Mary's, and Emily and I shared to the full her hero-worship. It was the nearest compensation my sister had had for the loss of Ellen, with this difference, that Mrs. Henderson was older, had read more, and had conversed thoughtfully with some of the leading spirits in religious thought, so that she opened a new world to us.
People would hardly believe in our eagerness and enthusiasm over the revelations of church doctrine; how we debated, consulted our books, and corresponded with Clarence over what now seems so trite; how we viewed the British Critic and Tracts for the Times as our oracles, and worried the poor Wattlesea bookseller to get them for us at the first possible moment.
Church restoration was setting in. Henderson had always objected to christening from a slop-basin on the altar, and had routed out a dilapidated font; and now one, which was termed by the country paper chaste and elegant, was by united efforts, in which Clarence had the lion's share, presented in time for the christening of the first child at the Parsonage. It is that which was sent off to the Mission Chapel as a blot on the rest of Earlscombe Church. Yet what an achievement it was deemed at the time!
The same may be said of most of our doings at that era. We effected them gradually, and have ever since been undoing them, as our architectural and ecclesiastical perceptions have advanced. I wonder how the next generation will deal with our alabaster reredos and our stained windows, with which we are all as well pleased as we were fifty years ago with the plain red cross with a target-like arrangement above and below it in the east window, or as poor Margaret may have been with her livery altar-cloth. Indeed, it seems to me that we got more delight out of our very imperfect work, designed by ourselves and sent to Clarence to be executed by men in back streets in London, costing an immensity of trouble, than can be had now by simply choosing out of a book of figures of cut and dried articles.
What an enthusiastic description Clarence sent of the illuminated commandments in the new Church of St. Katharine in the Regent's Park! How Emily and I gloated over the imitation of them when we replaced the hideous old tables, and how exquisite we thought the initial I, which irreverent youngsters have likened, with some justice, to an enormous overfed caterpillar, enwreathed with red and green cabbage leaves!
My mother was startled at these innovations; but my father, who had kept abreast with the thought of the day, owned to the doctrines as chiming in with his unbroken belief, and transferred to the improvements in the church the interest which he had lost in the estate. The farmers had given up their distrust of him, and accepted him loyally as friend and landlord, submitting to the reseating of the church, and only growling moderately at decorations that cost them nothing. Daily service began as soon as Henderson was his own master, and was better attended than it is now; for the old people to whom it was a novelty took up the habit more freely than their successors, to whom the bell has been familiar through their days of toil. We were too far off to be constant attendants; but evensong made an object for our airings, and my father's head, now quite white, was often seen there. He felt it a great relief amid the cares of his later years.
Perhaps it was with a view to him that Mr. Castleford arranged that Clarence should become manager for the firm at Bristol, with a good salary. The Robsons would not take a fresh lodger—they were getting too old for fresh beginnings; but they kept their rooms ready for him, whenever he had to be in town, and Gooch found him a trustworthy widow as housekeeper. He took a little cottage at Clifton, availing himself of the coach to spend his Sundays with us; and it was an acknowledged joy to every one that I should drive to meet him every Saturday afternoon at the Carpenter's Arms, and bring him home to be my father's aid in all his business, and a most valuable help in Sunday parish work, in which he had an amount of experience which astonished us.
What would have become of the singing without him? The first hint against the remarkable anthems had long ago alienated our tuneful choir placed on high, and they had deserted en masse. Then Emily and the schoolmistress had toiled at the school children, whose thin little pipes and provincialisms were a painful infliction, till Mrs. Henderson, backed by Clarence, worked up a few promising men's voices to support them. We thought everything but the New and Old Versions smacked of dissent, except the hymns at the end of the Prayer-book, though we did not go as far as Chapman, who told Emily he understood as how all the tunes was tried over in Doctor's Commons afore they were sent out, and it was not 'liable' to change them. One of Clarence's amusements in his lonely life had been the acquisition of a knowledge of music, and he had a really good voice; while his adherence to our choir encouraged other young men of the farmer and artisan class to join us. Choir, however, did not mean surplices and cassocks, but a collection of our best voices, male and female, in the gallery.
Martyn began to be a great help when at home, never having wavered in his purpose of becoming a clergyman. On going to Oxford, he became imbued with the influences that made Alma Mater the focus of the religious life and progress of that generation which is now the elder one. There might in some be unreality, in others extravagance, in others mere imitation; but there was a truly great work on the minds of the young men of that era—a work which has stood the test of time, made saints and martyrs, and sown the seed whereof we have witnessed a goodly growth, in spite of cruel shocks and disappointments, fightings within and fears without, slanders and follies to provoke them, such as we can now afford to laugh over. With Martyn, rubrical or extra-rubrical observances were the outlet of the exuberance of youth, as chivalry and romance had been to us; and on Frank Fordyce's visits, it was delightful to find that he too was in the full swing of these ideas and habits, partly from his own convictions, partly from his parish needs, and partly carried along by curates fresh from Oxford.
In the first of his summer vacations Martyn joined a reading party, with a tutor of the same calibre, and assured them that if they took up their quarters in a farmhouse not many miles by the map from Beachharbour, they would have access to unlimited services, with the extraordinary luxury of a surpliced choir, and intercourse with congenial spirits, which to him meant the Fordyces.
On arriving, however, the bay proved to be so rocky and dangerous that there was no boating across it, as he had confidently expected. The farm depended on a market town in the opposite direction, and though the lights of Beachharbour could be seen at night, there was no way thither except by a six-miles walk along a cliff path, with a considerable detour in order to reach a bridge and cross the rapid river which was an element of danger in the bay, on the north side of the promontory which sheltered the harbour to the south.
So when Martyn started as pioneer on the morning before the others arrived, he descended into Beachharbour later than he intended, but still he was in time to meet Anne Fordyce, a tall, bright-faced girl of fourteen, taking her after-lessons turn on the parade with a governess, who looked amazed as the two met, holding out both hands to one another, with eager joy and welcome.
It was not the same when Anne flew into the Vicarage with the rapturous announcement, 'Here's Martyn!' The vicar was gone to a clerical meeting, and Mrs. Fordyce said nothing about staying to see him. The luncheon was a necessity, but with quiet courtesy Martyn was made to understand that he was regarded as practically out of reach, and 'Oh, mamma, he could come and sleep,' was nipped in the utterance by 'Martyn is busy with his studies; we must not disturb him.' This was a sufficient intimation that Mrs. Fordyce did not intend to have the pupils dropping in on her continually, and making her house their resort; and while Martyn was digesting the rebuff, the governess carried Anne off to prepare for a music lesson, and her mother gave no encouragement to lingering or repeating the visit.
Still Martyn, on his way homewards, based many hopes on the return of Mr. Fordyce; but all that ensued was, three weeks later, a note regretting the not having been able to call, and inviting the whole party to a great school-feast on the anniversary of the dedication of the first of the numerous new churches of Beachharbour. There was no want of cordiality on that occasion, but time was lacking for anything beyond greetings and fleeting exchanges of words. Parson Frank tried to talk to Martyn, bemoaned the not seeing more of him, declared his intentions of coming to the farm, began an invitation, but was called off a hundred ways; and Anne was rushing about with all the children of the place, gentle and simple, on her hands. Whenever Martyn tried to help her, he was called off some other way, and engaged at last in the hopeless task of teaching cricket where these fisher boys had never heard of it.
That was all he saw of our old friends, and he was much hurt by such ingratitude. So were we all, and though we soon acquitted the head of the family of more than the forgetfulness of over occupation, the soreness at his wife's coldness was not so soon passed over. Yet from her own point of view, poor woman, she might be excused for a panic lest her second daughter might go the way of the first.
CHAPTER XXXVII—OUTWARD BOUND
'As slow our ship her foamy track Against the wind was cleaving, Her trembling pennant still looked back To the dear isle 'twas leaving. So loath we part from all we love, From all the links that bind us, So turn our hearts as on we rove To those we've left behind us.'
The first time I saw Clarence's menage was in that same summer of poor Martyn's repulse. My father had come in for a small property in his original county of Shropshire, and this led to his setting forth with my mother to make necessary arrangements, and then to pay visits to old friends; leaving Emily and me to be guests to our brother at Clifton.
We told them it was their harvest honeymoon, and it was funny to see how they enjoyed the scheme when they had once made up their minds to it, and our share in the project was equally new and charming, for Emily and I, though both some way on in our twenties, were still in many respects home children, nor had I ever been out on a visit on my own account. The yellow chariot began by conveying Emily and me to our destination.
Clifton has grown considerably since those days, and terraces have swallowed up the site of what the post-office knew as Prospect Cottage, but we were apt to term the doll's house, for, as Emily said, our visit there had something the same effect as a picnic or tea drinking at little Anne's famous baby house. In like manner, it was tiny, square, with one sash-window on each side of the door, but it was nearly covered with creepers, odds and ends which Clarence brought from home, and induced to flourish and take root better than their parent stocks. In his nursery days his precision had given him the name of 'the old bachelor,' and he had all a sailor's tidiness. Even his black cat and brown spaniel each had its peculiar basket and mat, and had been taught never to transgress their bounds or interfere with one another; and the effect of his parlour, embellished as it was in our honour, was delightful. The outlook was across the beautiful ravine, into the wooded slopes on the further side, and, on the other side, down the widening cleft to that giddy marvel, the suspension bridge, with vessels passing under it, and the expanse beyond.
Most entirely we enjoyed ourselves, making merry over Clarence's housekeeping, employing ourselves after our wonted semi-student, semi-artist fashion in the morning; and, when our host came home from business, starting on country expeditions, taking a carriage whenever the distance exceeded Emily's powers of walking beside my chair; sketching, botanising, or investigating church architecture, our newest hobby. I sketched, and the other two rambled about, measuring and filling up archaeological papers, with details of orientation, style, and all the rest, deploring barbarisms and dilapidations, making curious and delightful discoveries, pitying those who thought the Dun Cow's rib and Chatterton's loft the most interesting features of St. Mary's Redcliff, and above all rubbing brasses with heel ball, and hanging up their grim effigies wherever there was a vacant space on the walls of our doll's house.
And though we grumbled when Clarence was detained at the office later than we expected, this was qualified by pride at feeling his importance there as a man in authority. It was, however, with much dismay and some inhospitality that we learnt that a young man belonging to the office—in fact, Mr. Frith's great-nephew—was coming to sail for Canton in one of the vessels belonging to the firm, and would have to be 'looked after.' He could not be asked to sleep at Prospect Cottage, for Emily had the only spare bedchamber, and Clarence had squeezed himself into a queer little dressing closet to give me his room; but the housekeeper (a treasure found by Gooch) secured an apartment in the next house, and we were to act hosts, much against our will. Clarence had barely seen the youth, who had been employed in the office at Liverpool, living with his mother, who was in ill-health and had died in the last spring. The only time of seeing him, he had seemed to be a very shy raw lad; but, 'poor fellow, we can make the best of him,' was the sentiment; 'it is only for one night.' However, we were dismayed when, as Emily was in the crisis of washing-in a sky, it was announced that a gentleman was asking for Mr. Winslow. Churlishness bade us despatch him to the office, but humanity prevailed to invite him previously to share our luncheon. Yet we doubted whether it had not been a cruel mercy when he entered, evidently unprepared to stumble on a young lady and a deformed man, and stammering piteously as he hoped there was no mistake—Mr. Winslow—Prospect, etc.
Emily explained, frustrating his desire to flee at once to the office, and pointing out his lodging, close at hand, whence he was invited to return in a few minutes to the meal.
We had time for some amiable exclamations, 'The oaf!' 'What a bore!' 'He has spoilt my sky!' 'I shan't finish this to-day!' 'Shall we order a carriage and take him to the office; we can't have him on our hands all the afternoon?' 'And we might get the new number of Nicholas Nickleby.'
N.B.—Perhaps it was Oliver Twist or The Old Curiosity Shop—I am not certain which was the current excitement just then; but I am quite sure it was Mrs. Nickleby who first disclosed to us that our guest had a splendid pair of dark eyes. Hitherto he had kept them averted in the studious manner I have often noticed in persons who did not wish to excite suspicion of staring at my peculiarities; but that lady's feelings when her neighbour's legs came down her chimney were too much for his self-consciousness, and he gave a glance that disclosed dark liquid depths, sparkling with mirth. He was one number in advance of us, and could enlighten us on the next stage in the coming story; and this went far to reconcile us to the invasion, and to restore him to the proper use of his legs and arms—and very shapely limbs they were, for he was a slim, well-made fellow, with a dark gipsy complexion, and intelligent, honest face, altogether better than we expected.
Yet we could have groaned when in the evening, Clarence brought him back with tidings that something had gone wrong with the ship. If I tried to explain, I might be twitted with,
'The bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.'
But of course Clarence knew all about it, and he thought it unlikely that the vessel would be in sailing condition for a week at soonest. Great was our dismay! Getting through one evening by the help of walking and then singing was one thing, having the heart of our visit consumed by an interloper was another; though Clarence undertook to take him to the office and find some occupation for him that might keep him out of our way. But it was Clarence's leisure hours that we begrudged; though truly no one could be meeker than this unlucky Lawrence Frith, nor more conscious of being an insufferable burthen. I even detected a tear in his eye when Clarence and Emily were singing 'Sweet Home.'
'Do you know,' said Clarence, on the second evening, when his guest had gone to dress for dinner, 'I am very sorry for that poor lad. It is only six weeks since he lost his mother, and he has not a soul to care for him, either here or where he is going. I had fancied the family were under a cloud, but I find it was only that old Frith quarrelled with the father for taking Holy Orders instead of going into our house. Probably there was some imprudence; for the poor man died a curate and left no provision for his family. The only help the old man would give was to take the boy into the office at Liverpool, stopping his education just as he was old enough to care about it. There were a delicate mother and two sisters then, but they are all gone now; scarlet fever carried off the daughters, and Mrs. Frith never was well again. He seems to have spent his time in waiting on her when off duty, and to have made no friends except one or two contemporaries of hers; and his only belongings are old Frith and Mrs. Stevens, who are packing him off to Canton without caring a rap what becomes of him. I know what Mrs. Stevens is at; she comes up to town much oftener now, and has got her husband's nephew into the office, and is trying to get everything for him; and that's the reason she wants to keep up the old feud, and send this poor Lawrence off to the ends of the earth.'
'Can't you do anything for him?' asked Emily. 'I thought Mr. Frith did attend to you.'
Clarence laughed. 'I know that Mrs. Stevens hates me like poison; but that is the only reason I have for supposing I might have any influence.'
'And can't you speak to Mr. Castleford?'
'Set him to interfere about old Frith's relations! He would know better! Besides, the fellow is too old to get into any other line— four-and-twenty he says, though he does not look it; and he is as innocent as a baby, indifferent just now to what becomes of him, or whither he goes; it is all the same to him, he says; there is no one to care for him anywhere, and I think he is best pleased to go where it is all new. And there, you see, the poor lad will be left to drift to destruction—mother's darling that he has been—just for want of some human being to care about him, and hinder his getting heartless and reckless!'
Clarence's voice trembled, and Emily had tears in her eyes as she asked if absolutely nothing could be done for him. Clarence meant to write to Mr. Castleford, who would no doubt beg the chaplain at the station to show the young man some kindness; also, perhaps, to the resident partner, whom Clarence had looked at once over his desk, but in his rawest and most depressed days. The only clerk out there, whom he knew, would, he thought, be no element of safety, and would not like the youth the better either for bringing his recommendation or bearing old Frith's name.
We were considerably softened towards our guest, though the next time Emily came on him he was standing in the hall, transfixed in contemplation of her greatest achievement in brass-rubbing, a severe and sable knight with the most curly of nostrils, the stiffest and straightest of mouths, hair straight on his brows, pointed toes joined together below, and fingers touching over his breast. There he hung in triumph just within the front door, fluttering and swaying a little on his pins whenever a draught came in; and there stood Lawrence Frith, freshly aware of him, and unable to repress the exclamation, 'I say! isn't he a guy?'
'Sir Guy de Warrenne,' began Emily composedly; 'don't you see his coat of arms? "chequy argent and azure."'
'Does your brother keep him there to scare away the tramps?'
Emily's countenance was a study.
The subject of brasses was unfolded to Lawrence Frith, and before the end of the week he had spent an entire day on his hands and knees, scrubbing away with the waxy black compound at a figure in the Cathedral—the office-work, as we declared, which Clarence gave him to do. In fact he became so thoroughly infected that it was a pity that he was going where there would be no exercise in ecclesiology—rather the reverse. Embarrassment on his side, and hostility on ours, may be said to have vanished under the influence of Sir Guy de Warrenne's austere countenance. The youth seemed to regard 'Mr. Winslow' in the light of a father, and to accept us as kindly beings. He ceased to contort his limbs in our awful presence, looked at me like as an ordinary person, and even ventured on giving me an arm. He listened with unfeigned pleasure to our music, perilled his neck on St. Vincent's rocks in search of plants, and by and by took to hanging back with Emily, while Clarence walked on with me, to talk to her out of his full heart about his mother and sisters.
Three weeks elapsed before the Hoang-ho was ready to sail, and by that time Lawrence knew that there were some who would rejoice in his success, or grieve if things went ill with him. Clarence and I had promised him long home letters, and impressed on him that we should welcome his intelligence of himself. For verily he had made his way into our hearts, as a thoroughly good-hearted, affectionate being, yearning for something to cling to; intelligent and refined, though his recent cultivation had been restricted, soundly principled, and trained in religious feelings and habits, but so utterly inexperienced that there was no guessing how it might be with him when cast adrift, with no object save his own maintenance, and no one to take an interest in him.
Clarence talked to him paternally, and took him to second-hand shops to provide a cheap library of substantial reading, engaging to cater for him for the future, not omitting Dickens; and Emily worked at providing him with the small conveniences and comforts for the voyage that called for a woman's hand. He was so grateful that it was like fitting out a dear friend or younger brother.