'I wonder,' said Clarence, as he walked by my chair on one of the last days, 'whether it was altogether wise to have this young Frith here so much, though it could hardly have been helped.'
To which I rejoined that it could hardly have displeased the uncle, and that if it did, the youth's welfare was worth annoying him for.
'I meant something nearer home,' said Clarence, and proceeded to ask if I did not think Lawrence Frith a good deal smitten with Emily.
To me it seemed an idea not worth consideration. Any youth, especially one who had lived so secluded a life, would naturally be taken by the first pleasing young woman who came in his way, and took a kindly interest in him; but I did not think Emily very susceptible, being entirely wrapped up in home and parish matters; and I reminded Clarence that she had not been loverless. She had rejected the Curate of Hillside; and we all saw, though she did not, that only her evident indifference kept Sir George Eastwood's second son from making further advances.
Clarence was not convinced. He said he had never seen our sister look at either of these as she did when Lawrence came into the room; and there was no denying that there was a soft and embellishing light on her whole countenance, and a fresh sweetness in her voice. But then he seemed such a boy as to make the notion ridiculous; and yet, on reckoning, it proved that their years were equal. All that could be hoped was that the sentiment, if it existed, would not discover itself before they parted, so as to open their eyes to the dreariness of the prospect, and cause our mother to think we had betrayed our trust in the care of our sister. As we could do nothing, we were not sorry that this was the last day. Clarence was to go on board with Frith, see him out of the river, and come back with the pilot; and we all drove down to the wharf together; nobody saying much by the way, except the few jerky remarks we brothers felt bound to originate and reply to.
Emily sat very still, her head bent under her shading bonnet—I think she was trying to keep back tears for the solitary exile; and Lawrence, opposite, was unable to help watching her with wistful eyes, which would have revealed all, if we had not guessed it already. It might be presumptuous, but it made us very sorry for him.
When the moment of parting came, there was a wringing of hands, and, 'Thank you, thank you,' in a low, broken, heartfelt voice, and to Emily, 'You have made life a new thing to me. I shall never forget,' and the showing of a tiny book in his waistcoat pocket.
When the two had disappeared, Emily, no longer restraining her tears, told me that she had exchanged Prayer-books with him, and they were to read the Psalms at the same time every day. 'I thought it might be a help to him,' she said simply.
Nor was there any consciousness in her talk as she related to me what he had told her about his mother and sisters, and his dreary sense of piteous loneliness, till we had adopted him as a brother— in which capacity I trusted that she viewed him.
However, Clarence had been the recipient of all the poor lad's fervent feelings for Miss Winslow, how she had been a new revelation to his desolate spirit, and was to be the guiding star of his life, etc., etc., all from the bottom of his heart, though he durst not dream of requital, and was to live, not on hope, but on memory of the angelic kindness of these three weeks.
It was impossible not to be touched, though we strove to be worldly wise old bachelors, and assured one another that the best and most probable thing that could happen to Lawrence Frith would be to have his dream blown away by the Atlantic breezes, and be left open to the charms of some Chinese merchant's daughter.
CHAPTER XXXVIII—TOO LATE
'Thus Esau-like, our Father's blessing miss, Then wash with fruitless tears our faded crown.'
After such a rebuff as Martyn had experienced at Beachharbour, he no longer haunted its neighbourhood, but devoted the long vacation of the ensuing year to a walking tour in Germany, with one or two congenial spirits, who shared his delight in scenery, pictures, and architecture.
By and by he wrote to Clarence from Baden Baden -
'Whom do you think I should find here but Griffith and his bird? I first spotted the old fellow smoking under a tree in the Grand Platz, but he looked so seedy and altered altogether that I was not sure enough of him to speak, especially as he showed no signs of knowing me. (He says it was my whiskers that stumped him.) I made inquiries and found that they figured as "Sir Peacock and lady," but they were entered all right in the book. He is taking the "Kur"—he looks as if he wanted it—and she is taking rouge et noir. I saw her at the salon, with her neck grown as long as her namesake's, but not as pretty, claws to match, thin and painted, as if the ruling passion was consuming her. Poor old Griff! he was glad enough to see me, but he is wofully shaky, and nearly came to tears when he asked after Ted and all at home. They had an upset of their carriage in Vienna last winter, and he got some twist, or other damage, which he thought nothing of, but it has never righted itself; I am sure he is very ill, and ought to be looked after. He has had only foreign doctoring, and you know he never was strong in languages. I heard of the medico here inquiring what precise symptom der Englander meant by being "down in zie mout!" Poor Griff is that, whatever else he is, and Selina does not see it, nor anything else but her rouge et noir table. I am afraid he plays too, when he is up to it, but he can't stand much of the stuffiness of the place, and he respects my innocence, poor old beggar; so he has kept out of it, since we have been here. He seems glad to have me to look after him, but afraid to let me stay, for fear of my falling a victim to the place. I can't well tell him that there is a perpetual warning to youth in the persons of himself and his Peacock. His mind might be vastly relieved if I were out of it, but scarcely his body; and I shall not leave him till I hear from home. Thomson says I am right. I should like to bring the poor old man home for advice, especially if my lady could be left behind, and by all appearances she would not object. Could not you come, or mamma? Speak to papa about it. It is all so disgusting that I really could not write to him. It is enough to break one's heart to see Griff when he hears about home, and Edward, and Emily. I told him how famously you were getting on, and he said, "It has been all up, up with him, all down, down with me," and then he wanted me to fix my day for leaving Baden, as if it were a sink of infection. I fancy he thinks me a mere infant still, for he won't heed a word of advice about taking care of himself and WILL do the most foolish things imaginable for a man in his state, though I can't make out what is the matter with him. I tried both French and Latin with his doctor, equally in vain.'
There was a great consultation over this letter. Our parents would fain have gone at once to Baden, but my father was far from well; in fact, it was the beginning of the break-up of his constitution. He had been ageing ever since his disappointment in Griffith, and though he had so enjoyed his jaunt with my mother that he had seemed revived for the time, he had been visibly failing ever since the winter, and my mother durst not leave him. Indeed she was only too well aware that her presence was apt to inspire Selina with the spirit of contradiction, and that Clarence would have a better chance alone. He was to go up to London by the mail train, see Mr. Castleford, and cross to Ostend.
A valise from the lumber-room was wanted, and at bedtime he went in quest of it. He came back white and shaken; and I said -
'You have not seen HER?'
'Yes, I have.'
'It is not her time of year.'
'No; I was not even thinking of her. There was none of the wailing, but when I looked up from my rummaging, there was her face as if in a window or mirror on the wall.'
'Don't dwell on it' was all I could entreat, for the apparition at unusual times had been mentioned as a note of doom, and not only did it weigh on me, but it might send Clarence off in a desponding mood. Tidings were less rapid when telegraphs were not, and railways incomplete. Clarence did not reach Baden till ten days after the despatch of Martyn's letter, and Griffith's condition had in the meantime become much more serious. Low fever had set in, and he was confined to his dreary lodgings, where Martyn was doing his best for him in an inexperienced, helpless sort of way, while Lady Peacock was at the salle, persisting in her belief that the ailment was a temporary matter. Martyn afterwards declared that he had never seen anything more touching than poor Griff's look of intense rest and relief at Clarence's entrance.
On the way through London, by the assistance of Mr. Castleford, Clarence had ascertained how to procure the best medical advice attainable, and he was linguist enough to be an adequate interpreter. Alas! all that was achieved was the discovery that between difficulties of language, Griff's own indifference, and his wife's carelessness, the injury had developed into fatal disease. An operation MIGHT yet save him, if he could rally enough for it, but the fever was rapidly destroying his remaining strength. Selina ascribed it to excitement at meeting Martyn, and indeed he had been subject to such attacks every autumn. Any way, he had no spirits nor wish for improvement. If his brothers told him he was better, he smiled and said it was like a condemned criminal trying to recover enough for the gallows. His only desire was to be let alone and have Clarence with him. He had ceased to be uneasy as to Martyn's exposure to temptation, but he said he could hardly bear to watch that bright, fresh young manhood, and recollect how few years had passed since he had been such another, nor did he like to have any nurse save Clarence. His wife at first acquiesced, holding fast to the theory of the periodical autumnal fever, and then that the operation would restore him to health; and as her presence fretted him, and he received her small attentions peevishly, she persisted in her usual habits, and heard with petulance his brothers' assurances of his being in a critical condition, declaring that it was always thus with these fevers—he was always cross and low- spirited, and no one could tell what she had undergone with him.
Then came days of positive pain, and nights of delirious, dreary murmuring about home and all of us, more especially Ellen Fordyce. Clarence had no time for letters, and Martyn's became a call for mamma, with the old childish trust in her healing and comforting powers, declaring that he would meet her at Cologne, and steer her through the difficulties of foreign travel.
Hesitation was over now. My father was most anxious to send her, and she set forth, secure that she could infuse life, energy, and resolution into her son, when those two poor boys had failed.
It was not, however, Martyn who met her, but his friend Thomson, with the tidings that the suffering had become so severe as to prevent Martyn from leaving Baden, not only on his brother's account, but because Lady Peacock had at last taken alarm, and was so uncontrollable in her distress that he was needed to keep her out of the sickroom, where her presence, poor thing, only did mischief.
She evidently had a certain affection for her husband; and it was the more piteous that in his present state he only regarded her as the tempter who had ruined his life—his false Duessa, who had led him away from Una. On one unhappy evening he had been almost maddened by her insisting on arguing with him; he called her a hag, declared she had been the death of his children, the death of that dear one—could she not let him alone now she had been the death of himself?
When Martyn took her away, she wept bitterly, and told enough to make the misery of their life apparent, when the gaiety was over, and regrets and recriminations set in.
However, there came a calmer interval, when the suffering passed off, but in the manner which made the German doctor intimate that hope was over. Would life last till his mother came?
His brothers had striven from the first to awaken thoughts of higher things, and turn remorse into repentance; but every attempt resulted in strange, sad wanderings about Esau, the birthright, and the blessing. Indeed, these might not have been entirely wanderings, for once he said, 'It is better this way, Bill. You don't know what you wish in trying to bring me round. Don't be hard on me. She drove me to it. It is all right now. The Jews will be disappointed.'
For even at the crisis in London, he had concealed that he had raised money on post obits, so that, had he outlived my father, Chantry House would have been lost. Lady Peacock's fortune had been undermined when she married him; extravagance and gambling had made short work of the rest.
Why should I speak of such things here, except to mourn over our much-loved brother, with all his fine qualities and powers wasted and overthrown? He clung to Clarence's affection, and submitted to prayers and psalms, but without response. He showed tender recollection of us all, but scarcely durst think of his father, and hardly appeared to wish to see his mother. Clarence's object soon came to be to obtain forgiveness for the wife, since bitterness against her seemed the great obstacle to seeking pardon, peace, or hope; but each attempt only produced such bitterness against her, and such regrets and mourning for Ellen, as fearfully shook the failing frame, while he moaned forth complaints of the blandishments and raillery with which his temptress had beguiled him. Clarence tried in vain to turn away this idea, but nothing had any effect till he bethought himself of Ellen's message, that she knew even this fatal act had been prompted by generosity of spirit. There was truth enough in it to touch Griff, but only so far as to cry, 'What might I not have been with her?' Still, there was no real softening till my mother came. He knew her at once, and all the old childish relations were renewed between them. There was little time left now, but he was wholly hers. Even Clarence was almost set aside, save where strength was needed, and the mother seemed to have equal control of spirit and body. It was she, who, scarcely aware of what had gone before, caused him to admit Selina.
'Tell her not to talk,' he said. 'But we have each much to forgive one another.'
She came in, awed and silent, and he let her kiss him, sit near at hand, and wait on my mother, whose coming had, as it were, insensibly taken the bitterness away and made him as a little child in her hands. He could follow prayers in which she led him, as he could not, or did not seem to do, with any one else, for he was never conscious of the presence of the clergyman whom Thomson hunted up and brought, and who prayed aloud with Martyn while the physical agony claimed both my mother and Clarence.
Once Griff looked about him and called out for our father, then recollecting, muttered, 'No—the birthright gone—no blessing.'
It grieved us much, it grieves me now, that this was his last distinct utterance. He LOOKED as if the comforting replies and the appeals to the Source of all redemption did awaken a response, but he never spoke articulately again; and only thirty-six hours after my mother's arrival, all was over.
Poor Selina went into passions of hysterics and transports of grief, needing all the firmness of so resolute a woman as my mother to deal with her. She was wild in self-accusation, and became so ill that the care of her was a not unwholesome occupation for my mother, who was one of those with whom sorrow has little immediate outlet, and is therefore the more enduring.
She would not bring our brother's coffin home, thinking the agitation would be hurtful to my father, and anxious to get back to him as soon as possible. So Griff was buried at Baden, and from time to time some of us have visited his grave. Of course she proposed Selina's return to Chantry House with her; but Mr. Clarkson, the brother, had come out to the funeral, and took his sister home with him, certainly much to our relief, though all the sad party at Baden had drawn much nearer together in these latter days.
CHAPTER XXXIX—A PURPOSE
'It then draws near the season Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.'
We had really lost our Griffith long before—our bright, generous, warm-hearted, promising Griff, the brilliance of our home; but his actual death made the first breach in a hitherto unbroken family, and was a new and strange shock. It made my father absolutely an old man; and it also changed Martyn. His first contact with responsibility, suffering, and death had demolished the light- hearted boyishness which had lasted in the youngest of the family through all his high aspirations. Till his return to Oxford, his chief solace was in getting some one of us alone, going through all the scenes at Baden, discussing his new impressions of the trials and perplexities of life, and seeking out passages in the books that were becoming our oracles. What he had admired externally before, he was grasping from within; nor can I describe what the Lyra Apostolica, and the two first volumes of Parochial Sermons preached at Littlemore, became to us.
Mr. Clarkson had been rather dry with my brothers at Baden, evidently considering that poor Griffith had been as fatal to his sister as we thought Selina had been to our brother. It was hardly just, for there had been much more to spoil in him than in her; and though she would hardly have trod a much higher path, there is no saying what he might have been but for her.
Griffith had said nothing about providing for her, not having forgiven her till he was past recollecting the need, but her brother had intimated that something was due from the family, and Clarence had assented—not, indeed, as to her deserts, poor woman, but her claims and her needs—well knowing that my father would never suffer Griff's widow to be in want.
He judged rightly. My father was nervously anxious to arrange for giving her 500 pounds a year, in the manner most likely to prevent her from making away with it, and leaving herself destitute. But there had already been heavy pulls on his funded property, and ways and means had to be considered, making Clarence realise that he had become the heir. Somehow, there still remained, especially with my mother and himself, a sense of his being a failure, and an inferior substitute, although my father had long come to lean upon him, as never had been the case with our poor Griff.
The first idea of raising the amount required was by selling an outlying bit of the estate near the Wattlesea Station, for which an enterprising builder was making offers, either to purchase or take on a building lease. My father had received several letters on the subject, and only hesitated from a feeling against breaking up the estate, especially if this were part of the original Chantry House property, and not a more recent acquisition of the Winslows. Moreover, he would do nothing without Clarence's participation.
The title-deeds were not in the house, for my father had had too much of the law to meddle more than he could help with his own affairs, and had left them in the hands of the family solicitor at Bristol, where Clarence was to go and look over them. He rejoiced in the opportunity of being able to see whether anything would throw light on the story of the mullion chamber; and the certainty that the Wattlesea property had never been part of the old endowment of the Chantry did not seem nearly so interesting as a packet of yellow letters tied with faded red tape. Mr. Ryder made no difficulty in entrusting these to him, and we read them by our midnight lamp.
Clarence had seen poor Margaret's will, bequeathing her entire property to her husband's son, Philip Winslow, and had noted the date, 1705; also the copy of the decision in the Court of Probate that there was no sufficient evidence of entail on the Fordyce family to bar her power of disposing of it. We eagerly opened the letters, but found them disappointing, as they were mostly offerings of 'Felicitations' to Philip Winslow on having established his 'Just Claim,' and 'refuted the malicious Accusations of Calumny.' They only served to prove the fact that he had been accused of something, and likewise that he had powerful friends, and was thought worth being treated with adulation, according to the fashion of his day. Perhaps it was hardly to be expected that he should have preserved evidence against himself, but it was baffling to sift so little out of such a mass of correspondence. If we could have had access to the Fordyce papers, no doubt they would have given the other phase of the transaction, but they were unattainable. The only public record that Clarence could discover was much abbreviated, and though there was some allusion to intimidation, the decision seemed to have been fixed by the non-existence of any entail.
Christmas was drawing on, and gathering together what was left of us. Though Griffith had spent only one Christmas at home in nine years, it was wonderful how few we seemed, even when Martyn returned. My father liked to have us about him, and even spoke of Clarence's giving up his post as manager at Bristol, and living entirely at home to attend to the estate; but my mother did not encourage the idea. She could not quite bear to accept any one in Griff's place, and rightly thought there was not occupation enough to justify bringing Clarence home. I was competent to assist my father through all the landlord's business that came to him within doors, and Emily had ridden and walked about enough with him to be an efficient inspector of crops and repairs, besides that Clarence himself was within reach.
'Indeed,' he said to me, 'I cannot loose my hold on Frith and Castleford till I see my way into the future.'
I did not know what he intended either then or when he gave his voice against dismembering the property by selling the Wattlesea estate, but arranged for raising Selina's income otherwise, persuading my father to let him undertake the building of the required cottages out of his own resources, on principles much more wholesome than were likely to be employed by the speculator. Nor did grasp what was in his mind when he made me look out my 'ghost journal,' as we called my record of each apparition reported in the mullion chamber or the lawn, with marks to those about which we had no reasonable doubt. Separately there might be explanation, but conjointly and in connection with the date they had a remarkable force.
'I am resolved,' said Clarence, 'to see whether that figure can have a purpose. I have thought of it all those years. It has hitherto had no fair play. I was too much upset by the sight, and beaten by the utter incredulity of everybody else; but now I am determined to look into it.'
There was both awe and resolution in his countenance, and I only stipulated that he should not be alone, or with no more locomotive companion than myself. Martyn was as old as I had been at our former vigil, and a person to be relied on.
A few months ago he would have treated the matter as a curious adventurous enterprise—a concession to superstition or imagination; but now he took it up with much grave earnestness. He had been discussing the evidence for such phenomena with friends at Oxford, and the conclusion had been that they were at times permitted, sometimes as warnings, sometimes to accomplish the redress of a wrong, sometimes to teach us the reality of the spiritual world about us; and, likewise, that some constitutions were more susceptible than others to these influences. Of course he had adduced all that he knew of his domestic haunted chamber, but had found himself uncertain as to the amount of direct or trustworthy evidence. So he eagerly read our jottings, and was very anxious to keep watch with Clarence, though there were greater difficulties in the way than when the outer chamber was Griffith's sitting-room, and always had a fire lighted.
To our disappointment, likewise, there came an invitation from the Eastwoods for the evening of the 27th of December, the second of the recurring days of the phantom's appearance. My father could not, and my mother would not go, but they so much wanted my brothers and sister to accept it that it could not well be declined. It was partly a political affair, and my father was anxious to put Clarence forward, and make him take his place as the future squire; and my mother thought depression had lasted long enough with her children, and did not like to see Martyn so grave and preoccupied. 'It was quite right and very nice in him, dear boy, but it was not natural at his age, though he was to be a clergyman.'
As to Emily, her gentle cheerfulness had helped us all through our time of sorrow, and just now we had been gratified by the tidings of young Lawrence Frith. That youth was doing extremely well. There had been golden reports from manager and chaplain, addressed to Mr. Castleford, the latter adding that the young man evidently owed much to Mr. Winslow's influence. Moreover, Lawrence had turned out an excellent correspondent. Long letters, worthy of forming a book of travels, came regularly to Clarence and me, indeed they were thought worth being copied into that fat clasped MS. book in the study. Writing them must have been a real solace to the exile, in his island outside the town, whither all the outer barbarians were relegated. So, no doubt, was the packing of the gifts that were gradually making Prospect Cottage into a Chinese exhibition of nodding mandarins, ivory balls, exquisite little cups, and faggots of tea. Also, a Chinese walking doll was sent humbly as an offering for the amusement of Miss Winslow's school children, whom indeed she astonished beyond measure; and though her wheels are out of order, and her movements uncertain, she is still a stereotyped incident in the Christmas entertainments.
There was no question but that these letters and remembrances gave great pleasure to Emily; but I believe she was not in the least conscious that though greater in degree, it was not of the same quality as that she felt when a runaway scholar who had gone to sea presented her in token of gratitude with a couple of dried sea- horses.
CHAPTER XL—THE MIDNIGHT CHASE
'What human creature in the dead of night Had coursed, like hunted hare, that cruel distance, Had sought the door, the window in her flight Striving for dear existence?'
On the night of the 26th of December, Clarence and Martyn, well wrapped in greatcoats, stole into the outer mullion room; but though the usual sounds were heard, and the mysterious light again appeared, Martyn perceived nothing else, and even Clarence declared that if there were anything besides, it was far less distinct to him than it had been previously. Could it be that his spiritual perceptions were growing dimmer as he became older, and outgrew the sensitiveness of nerves and imagination?
We came to the conclusion that it would be best to watch the outside of the house, rather than within the chamber; and the dinner-party facilitated this, since it accounted for being up and about nearer to the hour when the ghost might be expected. Egress could be had through the little garden door, and I undertook to sit up and keep up the fire.
All three came to my room on their return home, for Emily had become aware of our scheme, and entreated to be allowed to watch with us. Clarence had unfastened the alarum bell from my shutters, and taken down the bar after the curtains had been drawn by the housemaid, and he now opened them. It was a frosty moonlight night, and the lawn lay white and crisp, marked with fantastic shadows. The others looked grave and pale, Emily was in a thick white shawl and hood, with a swan's down boa over her black dress, a somewhat ghostly figure herself, but we were in far too serious a mood for light observations.
There was something of a shudder about Clarence as he went to unbolt the back door; Martyn kept close to him. We saw them outside, and then Emily flew after them. From my window I could watch them advancing on the central gravel walk, Emily standing still between her brothers, clasping an arm of each. I saw the light near the ruin, and caught some sounds as of shrieks and of threatening voices, the light flitted towards the gable of the mullion rooms, and then was the concluding scream. All was over, and the three came back much agitated, Emily sinking into an armchair, panting, her hands over her face, and a nervous trembling through her whole frame, Martyn's eyes looking wide and scared, Clarence with the well-known look of terror on his face. He hurried to fetch the tray of wine and water that was always left on the table when anyone went to a party at night, but he shivered too much to prevent the glasses from jingling, and I had to pour out the sherry and administer it to Emily. 'Oh! poor, poor thing,' she gasped out.
'You saw?' I exclaimed.
'They did,' said Martyn; 'I only saw the light, and heard! That was enough!' and he shuddered again.
'Then Emily did,' I began, but Clarence cut me short. 'Don't ask her to-night.'
'Oh! let me tell,' cried Emily; 'I can't go away to bed till I have had it out.'
Then she gave the details, which were the more notable because she had not, like Martyn, been studying our jottings, and had heard comparatively little of the apparition.
'When I joined the boys,' she said, 'I looked toward the mullion rooms; I saw the windows lighted up, and heard a sobbing and crying inside.'
'So did I,' put in Martyn, and Clarence bent his head.
'Then,' added Emily, 'by the moonlight I saw the gable end, not blank, and covered by the magnolia as it is now, but with stone steps up to the bricked-up doorway. The door opened, the light spread, and there came out a lady in black, with a lamp in one hand, and a kind of parcel in the other, and oh, when she turned her face this way, it was Ellen's!'
'So you called out,' whispered Martyn.
'Dear Ellen, not as she used to be,' added Emily, 'but like what she was when last I saw her; no, hardly that either, for this was sad, sad, scared, terrified, with eyes all tears, as Ellen never, never was.'
'I saw,' added Clarence, 'I saw the shape, but not the countenance and expression as I used to do.'
'She came down the steps,' continued Emily, 'looking about her as if making her escape, but, just as she came opposite to us, there was a sound of tipsy laughing and singing from the gate up by the wood.'
'I thought it real,' said Martyn.
'Then,' continued Emily, 'she wavered, then turned and went under an arch in the ruin—I fancied she was hiding something—then came out and fled across to the steps; but there were two dark men rushing after her, and at the stone steps there was a frightful shriek, and then it was all over, the steps gone, all quiet, and the magnolia leaves glistening in the moonshine. Oh! what can it all mean?'
'Went under the arch,' repeated Clarence. 'Is it what she hid there that keeps her from resting?'
'Then you believe it really happened?' said Emily, 'that some terrible scene is being acted over again. Oh! but can it be the real spirits!'
'That is one of the great mysteries,' answered Martyn; 'but I could tell you of other instances.'
'Don't now,' I interposed; 'Emily has had quite enough.'
We reminded her that the ghastly tragedy was over and would not recur again for another year; but she was greatly shaken, and we were very sorry for her, when the clock warned her to go to her own room, whither Martyn escorted her. He lighted every candle he could find, and revived the fire; but she was sadly overcome by what she had witnessed, she lay awake all the rest of the night, and in the morning, looked so unwell, and had so little to tell about the party that my mother thought her spirits had been too much broken for gaieties.
The real cause could not be confessed, for it would have been ascribed to some kind of delirium, and have made a commotion for which my father was unfit. Besides, we had reached an age when, though we would not have disobeyed, liberty of thought and action had become needful. All our private confabulations were on this extraordinary scene. We looked for the arch in the ruin, but there was, as our morning senses told us, nothing of the kind. She tried to sketch her remembrance of both that and the gable of the mullion chamber, and Martyn prowled about in search of some hiding-place. Our antiquarian friend, Mr. Stafford, had made a conjectural drawing of the Chapel restored, and all the portfolios about the house were searched for it, disquieting mamma, who suspected Martyn's Oxford notions of intending to rebuild it, nor would he say that it ought not to be done. However, he with his more advanced ecclesiology, pronounced Mr. Stafford's reconstruction to be absolutely mistaken and impossible, and set to work on a fresh plan, which, by the bye, he derides at present. It afforded, however, an excuse for routing under the ivy and among the stones, but without much profit. From the mouldings on the materials and in the stables and the front porch, it was evident that the chapel had been used as a quarry, and Emily's arch was very probably that of the entrance door. In a dry summer, the foundations of the walls and piers could be traced on the turf, and the stumps of one or two columns remained, but the rest was only a confused heap of fragments within which no one could have entered as in that strange vision.
Another thing became clear. There had once been a wall between the beech wood and the lawn, with a gate or door in it; Chapman could just remember its being taken down, in James Winslow's early married life, when landscape gardening was the fashion. It must have been through this that the Winslow brothers were returning, when poor Margaret perhaps expected them to enter by the front.
We wished we could have consulted Dame Dearlove, but she had died a few years before, and her school was extinct.
CHAPTER XLI—WILLS OLD AND NEW
'And that to-night thou must watch with me To win the treasure of the tomb.'
Some seasons seem to be peculiarly marked, as if Death did indeed walk forth in them.
Old Mr. Frith died in the spring of 1841, and it proved that he had shown his gratitude to Clarence by a legacy of shares in the firm amounting to about 2000 pounds. The rest of his interest therein went to Lawrence Frith, and his funded property to his sister, Mrs. Stevens, a very fair and upright disposition of his wealth.
Only six weeks later, my father had a sudden seizure, and there was only time to summon Clarence from London and Martyn from Oxford, before a second attack closed his righteous and godly career upon earth.
My mother was very still and calm, hardly shedding a tear, but her whole demeanour was as if life were over for her, and she had nothing to do save to wait. She seemed to care very little for tendernesses or attentions on our part. No doubt she would have been more desolate without them, but we always had a baffled feeling, as though our affection were contrasted with her perfect union with her husband. Yet they had been a singularly undemonstrative couple; I never saw a kiss pass between them, except as greeting or farewell before or after a journey; and if my mother could not use the terms papa or your father, she always said, 'Mr. Winslow.' There was a large gathering at the funeral, including Mr. Fordyce, but he slept at Hillside, and we scarcely saw him—only for a few kind words and squeezes of the hand. Holy Week was begun, and he had to hurry back to Beachharbour that very night.
The will had been made on my father's coming into the inheritance. It provided a jointure of 800 pounds per annum for my mother, and gave each of the younger children 3000 pounds. A codicil had been added shortly after Griffith's death, written in my father's hand, and witnessed by Mr. Henderson and Amos Bell. This put Clarence in the position of heir; secured 500 pounds a year to Griffith's widow, charged on the estate, and likewise an additional 200 pounds a year to Emily and to me, hers till marriage, mine for life, 300 pounds a year to Martyn, until Earlscombe Rectory should be voided, when it was to be offered to him. The executors had originally been Mr. Castleford and my mother, but by this codicil, Clarence was substituted for the former.
The legacies did not come out of the Chantry House property, for my father had, of course, means of his own besides, and bequests had accrued to both him and my mother; but Clarence was inheriting the estate much more burthened than it had been in 1829, having 2000 pounds a year to raise out of its proceeds.
My mother was quite equal to business, with a sort of outside sense, which she applied to it when needful. Clarence made it at once evident to her that she was still mistress of Chantry House, and that it was still to be our home; and she immediately calculated what each ought to contribute to the housekeeping. She looked rather blank when she found that Clarence did not mean to give up business, nor even to become a sleeping partner; but when she examined into ways and means, she allowed that he was prudent, and that perhaps it was due to Mr. Castleford not to deprive him of an efficient helper under present circumstances. Meantime she was content to do her best for Earlscombe 'for the present,' by which she meant till her son brought home a wife; but we knew that to him the words bore a different meaning, though he was still in doubt and uncertainty how to act, and what might be the wrong to be undone.
He was anxious to persuade her to go from home for a short time, and prevailed on her at last to take Emily and me to Dawlish, while the repairs went on which had been deferred during my father's feebleness; at least that was the excuse. We two, going with great regret, knew that his real reason was to have an opportunity for a search among the ruins.
It was in June, just as Martyn came back from Oxford, eager to share in the quest. Those two brothers would trust no one to help them, but one by one, in the long summer evenings, they moved each of those stones; I believe the servants thought they were crazed, but they could explain with some truth that they wanted to clear up the disputed points as to the architecture, as indeed they succeeded in doing.
They had, however, nearly given up, having reached the original pavement and disinterred the piscina of the side altar, also a beautiful coffin lid with a floriated cross; when, in a kind of hollow, Martyn lit upon the rotten remains of something silken, knotted together. It seemed to have enclosed a bundle. There were some rags that might have been a change of clothing, also a Prayer- book, decayed completely except the leathern covering, inside which was the startling inscription, 'Margaret Winslow, her booke; Lord, have mercy on a miserable widow woman.' There was also a thick leathern roll, containing needles, pins, and scissors, entirely corroded, and within these a paper, carefully folded, but almost destroyed by the action of damp and the rust of the steel, so that only thus much was visible. 'I, Margaret Winslow, being of sound mind, do hereby give and bequeath—'
Then came stains that defaced every line, till the extreme end, where a seal remained; the date 1707 was legible, and there were some scrawls, probably the poor lady's signature, and perhaps that of witnesses. Clarence and Martyn said very little to one another, but they set out for Dawlish the next day.
'Found' was indicated to us, but no more, for they arrived late, and had to sleep at the hotel, after an evening when we were delighted to hear my mother ask so many questions about household and parish affairs. In the morning she was pleased to send all 'the children' out on the beach, then free from the railway. It was a beautiful day, with the intensely blue South Devon sea dancing in golden ripples, and breaking on the shore with the sound Clarence loved so well, as, in the shade of the dark crimson cliffs, Emily sat at my feet and my brothers unfolded their strange discoveries into her lap. There was a kind of solemnity in the thing; we scarcely spoke, except that Emily said, 'Oh, will she come again,' and, as the tears gathered at sight of the pathetic petition in the old book, 'Was that granted?'
We reconstructed our theory. The poor lady must have repented of the unjust will forced from her by her stepsons, and contrived to make another; but she must have been kept a captive until, during their absence at some Christmas convivialities, she tried to escape; but hearing sounds betokening their return, she had only time to hide the bundle in the ruin before she was detected, and in the scuffle received a fatal blow.
'But why,' I objected, 'did she not remain hidden till her enemies were safe in the house?'
'Terrified beyond the use of her senses,' said Clarence.
'By all accounts,' said Martyn, 'the poor creature must have been rather a silly woman.'
'For shame, Martyn,' cried Emily, 'how can you tell? They might have seen her go in, or she might have feared being missed.'
'Or if you watch next Christmas you may see it all explained.'
To which Emily replied with a shiver that nothing would induce her to go through it again, and indeed she hoped the spirit would rest since the discovery had been made.
'And then?'—one of us said, and there was a silence, and another futile attempt to read the will.
'I shall take it to London and see what an expert can do with it,' said Clarence. 'I have heard of wonderful decipherings in the Record Office; but you will remember that even if it can be made out, it will hardly invalidate our possession after a hundred and thirty years.'
'Clarence!' cried Emily in a horrified voice; and I asked if the date were not later than that by which we inherited.
'Three years,' Clarence said, 'yes; but as things stand, it is absolutely impossible for me to make restitution at present.'
'On account of the burthens on the estate?' I said.
'Oh, but we could give up,' said Emily.
'I dare say!' said Clarence, smiling; 'but to say nothing of poor Selina, my mother would hardly see it in the same light, nor should I deal rightly, even if I could make any alterations; I doubt whether my father would have held himself bound—certainly not while no one can read this document.'
'It would simply outrage his legal mind,' said Martyn.
'Then what is to be done? Is the injustice to be perpetual?' asked Emily.
'This is what I have thought of,' said Clarence. 'We must leave matters as they are till I can realise enough either to pay off all these bequests, or to offer Mr. Fordyce the value of the estate.'
'It is not the whole,' I said.
'Not the Wattlesea part. This means Chantry House and the three farms in the village. 10,000 pounds would cover it.'
'Is it possible?' asked Emily.
'Yes,' returned Clarence, 'God helping me. You know our concern is bringing in good returns, and Mr. Castleford will put me in the way of doing more with my available capital.'
'We will save so as to help you!' added Emily. At which he smiled.
CHAPTER XLII—ON A SPREE
'Her eyes as stars of twilight fair, Like twilight too, her dusky hair, But all things else about her drawn From May-time and the cheerful dawn, A dancing shape, an image gay, To haunt, to startle, and waylay.'
Clarence went to London according to his determination, and as he had for some time been urgent that I should try some newly-invented mechanical appliances, he took me with him, this being the last expedition of the ancient yellow chariot. One of his objects was that I should see St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, which was then the most distinguished church of our school of thought, and where there was to be some special preaching. The Castlefords had a seat there, and I was settled there in good time, looking at the few bits of stained glass then in the east window, when, as the clergy came in from the vestry, I beheld a familiar face, and recognised the fine countenance and bearing of our dear old friend Frank Fordyce.
Then, looking at the row of ladies in front of me, I beheld for a moment an outline of a profile recalling many things. No doubt, Anne Fordyce was there, though instead of barely emulating my stunted stature, she towered above her companions, looking to my mind most fresh and graceful in her pretty summer dress; and I knew that Clarence saw her too.
I had never heard Mr. Fordyce preach before, as in his flying visits his ministrations were due at Hillside; and I certainly should have been struck with the force and beauty of his sermon if I had never known him before. It was curious that it was on the 49th Psalm, meant perhaps for the fashionable congregation, but remarkably chiming in with the feelings of us, who were conscious of an inheritance of evil from one who had 'done well unto himself;' though, no doubt, that was the last thing honest Parson Frank was thinking of.
When the service was over, and Anne turned, she became aware of us, and her face beamed all over. It was a charming face, with a general likeness to dear Ellen's, but without the fragile ethereal look, and all health, bloom, and enjoyment recalling her father's. She was only moving to let her pew-fellows pass out, and was waiting for him to come for her, as he did in a few moments, and he too was all pleasure and cordiality. He told us when we were outside that he had come up to preach, and 'had brought Miss Anne up for a spree.' They were at a hotel, Mrs. Fordyce was at home, and the Lesters were not in town this season—a matter of rejoicing to us. Could we not come home and dine with them at once? We were too much afraid of disappointing Gooch to do so, but they made an appointment to meet us at the Royal Academy as soon as it was open the next morning.
There was a fortnight of enjoyment. Parson Frank was like a boy out for a holiday. He had not spent more than a day or two in town for many years; Anne had not been there since early childhood, and they adopted Clarence as their lioniser, going through such a country- cousin course of delights as in that memorable time with Ellen. They even went down to Eton and Windsor, Frank Fordyce being an old Etonian. I doubt whether Clarence ever had a more thoroughly happy time, not even in the north of Devon, for there was no horse on his mind, and he was not suppressed as in those days. Indeed, I believe, it is the experience of others besides ourselves that there is often more unmixed pleasure on casual holidays like this than in those of early youth; for even if spirits are less high (which is not always the case), anticipations are less eager, there is more readiness to accept whatever comes, more matured appreciation, and less fret and friction at contretemps.
I was not much of a drag, for when I could not be with the others, I had old friends, and the museum was as dear to me as ever, in those recesses that had been the paradise of my youth; but there was a good deal in which we could all share, and as usual they were all kind consideration.
Anne overflowed with minute remembrances of her old home, and Clarence so basked in her sunshine that it began to strike me that here might be the solution of all the perplexities especially after the first evening, when he had shown his strange discovery to Mr. Fordyce, who simply laughed and said we need not trouble ourselves about it. Illegible was it? He was heartily glad to hear that it was. Even otherwise, forty years' possession was quite enough, and then he pointed to the grate, and said that was the best place for such things. There was no fire, but Clarence could hardly rescue the paper from being torn up.
As to the ghost, he knew much less than his daughter Ellen had done. He said his old aunt had some stories about Chantry House being haunted, and had thought it incumbent on her to hate the Winslows, but he had thought it all nonsense, and such stories were much better forgotten. 'Would he not see if there were any letters?'
There might be, perhaps in the solicitor's office at Bath, but if he ever got hold of them, he should certainly burn them. What was the use of being Christians, if such quarrels were to be remembered?
Anne knew nothing. Aunt Peggy had died before she could remember, and even Martyn had been discreet. Clarence said no more after that one conversation, and seemed to me engrossed between his necessary business at the office, and the pleasant expeditions with the Fordyces. Only when they were on the point of returning home, did he tell me that the will had been pronounced utterly past deciphering, and that he thought he saw a way of setting all straight. 'So do I,' was my rejoinder, and there must have been a foolishly sagacious expression about me that made him colour up, and say, 'No such thing, Edward. Don't put that into my head.'
'Isn't it there already?'
'It ought not to be. It would be mere treachery in these sweet, fresh, young, innocent, days of hers, knowing too what her mother would think of it and of me. Didn't you observe in old Frank's unguarded way of reading letters aloud, and then trying to suppress bits, that Mrs. Fordyce was not at all happy at our being so much about with them, poor woman. No wonder! the child is too young,' he added, showing how much, after all, he was thinking of it. 'It would be taking a base advantage of them NOW.'
'But by and by?'
'If she should be still free when the great end is achieved and the evil repaired, then I might dare.'
He broke off with a look of glad hope, and I could see it was forbearance rather than constitutional diffidence that withheld him from awakening the maiden's feelings. He was a very fine looking man, in his prime—tall, strong, and well made, with a singularly grave, thoughtful expression, and a rare but most winning smile; and Anne was overflowing with affectionate gladness at intercourse with one who belonged to the golden age of her childhood. I could scarcely believe but that in the friction of the parting the spark would be elicited, and I should even have liked to kindle it for them myself, being tolerably certain that warm-hearted, unguarded Parson Frank would forget all about his lady and blow it with all his might.
We dined with the Fordyces at their hotel, and sat in the twilight with the windows open, and we made Anne and Clarence sing, as both could do without notes, but he would not undertake to remember anything with an atom of sentiment in it, and when Anne did sing, 'Auld lang syne,' with all her heart, he went and got into a dark corner, and barely said, 'Thank you.'
Not a definite answer could be extracted from him in reply to all the warm invitations to Beachharbour that were lavished on us by the father, while the daughter expatiated on its charms; the rocks I might sketch, the waves and the delicious boating, and above all the fisher children and the church. Nothing was wanting but to have us all there! Why had we not brought Mrs. Winslow, and Emily, and Martyn, instead of going to Dawlish?
Good creatures, they little knew the chill that had been cast upon Martyn. They even bemoaned the having seen so little of him. And we knew all the time that they were mice at play in the absence of their excellent and cautious cat.
'Now mind you do come!' said Anne, as we were in the act of taking leave. 'It would be as good as Hillside to have you by my Lion rock. He has a nose just like old Chapman's, and you must sketch it before it crumbles off. Yes, and I want to show you all the dear old things you made for my baby-house after the fire, your dear little wardrobe and all.'
She was coming out with us, oblivious that a London hotel was not like her own free sea-side house. Her father was out at the carriage door, prepared to help me in, Clarence halted a moment -
'Please, pray, go back, Anne,' he said, and his voice trembled. 'This is not home you know.'
She started back, but paused. 'You'll not forget.'
'Oh no; no fear of my forgetting.'
And when seated beside me, he leant back with a sigh.
'How could you help?' I said.
'How? Why the perfect, innocent, childish, unconsciousness of the thing,' he said, and became silent except for one murmur on the way.
'Consequences must be borne—'
CHAPTER XLIII—THE PRICE
'With thee, my bark, I'll swiftly go Athwart the foaming brine.'
Clarence would not tell me his purpose, he said, till he had considered it more fully; nor could we have much conversation on the way home, as my mother had arranged that we should bring an old friend of hers back with us to pay her a visit. So I had to sit inside and make myself agreeable to Mrs. Wrightson, while Clarence had plenty of leisure for meditation outside on the box seat. The good lady said much on the desirableness of marriage for Clarence, and the comfort it would be to my mother to see Emily settled.
We had heard much in town of railway shares; and the fortunes of Hudson, the railway king, were under discussion. I suspected Clarence of cogitating the using his capital in this manner; and hoped that when he saw his way, he might not think it dishonourable to come into further contact with Anne, and reveal his hopes. He allowed that he was considering of such investments, but would not say any more.
My mother and Emily had, in the meantime, been escorted home by Martyn. The first thing Clarence did was to bespeak Emily's company in a turn in the garden. What passed then I never knew nor guessed for years after. He consulted her whether, in case he were absent from England for five, seven, or ten years, she would be equal to the care of my mother and me. Martyn, when ordained, would have duties elsewhere, and could only be reckoned upon in emergencies. My mother, though vigorous and practical, had shown symptoms of gout, and if she were ill, I could hardly have done much for her; and on the other hand, though my health and powers of moving were at their best, and I was capable of the headwork of the estate, I was scarcely fit to be the representative member of the family. Moreover, these good creatures took into consideration that poor mamma and I would have been rather at a loss as each other's sole companions. I could sort shades for her Berlin work, and even solve problems of intricate knitting, and I could read to her in the evening; but I could not trot after her to her garden, poultry-yard, and cottages; nor could she enter into the pursuits that Emily had shared with me for so many years. Our connecting link, that dear sister, knew how sorely she would be missed, and she told Clarence that she felt fully competent to undertake, conjointly with us, all that would be incumbent on Chantry House, if he really wanted to be absent. For the rest, Clarence believed my mother would be the happier for being left regent over the estate; and his scheme broke upon me that very forenoon, when my mother and he were settling some executor's business together, and he told her that Mr. Castleford wished him to go out to Hong Kong, which was then newly ceded to the English, and where the firm wished to establish a house of business.
'You can't think of it,' she exclaimed, and the sound fell like a knell on my ears.
'I think I must,' was his answer. 'We shall be cut out if we do not get a footing there, and there is no one who can quite answer the purpose.'
'Not that young Frith—'
'Ten to one but he is on his way home. Besides, if not, he has his own work at Canton. We see our way to very considerable advantages, if—'
'Advantages!' she interrupted. 'I hate speculation. I should have thought you might be contented with your station; but that is the worst of merchants,—they never know when to stop. I suppose your ambition is to make this a great overgrown mansion, so that your father would not know it again.'
'Certainly not that, mamma,' said Clarence smiling; 'it is the last thing I should think of; but stopping would in this case mean going backward.'
'Why can't Mr. Castleford send one of his own sons?'
'Probably Walter may come out by and by, but he has not experience enough for this.'
Clarence had not in the least anticipated my mother's opposition, for he had come to underestimate her affection for and reliance on him. He had us all against him, for not only could we not bear to part with him; but the climate of Hong-Kong was in evil repute, and I had become persuaded that, with his knowledge of business, railway shares and scrip might be made to realise the amount needed, but he said, 'That is what I call speculation. The other matter is trade in which, with Heaven's blessing, I can hope to prosper.'
He explained that Mr. Castleford had received him on his coming to London with almost a request that he would undertake this expedition; but with fears whether, in his new position, he could or would do so, although his presence in China would be very important to the firm at this juncture; and there would be opportunities which would probably result in very considerable profits after a few years. If Clarence had been, as before, a mere younger brother, it would have been thought an excellent chance; and he would almost have felt bound by his obligations to Mr. Castleford to undertake the first starting of the enterprise, if it had not been for our recent loss, and the doubt whether he could he spared from home.
He made light of the dangers of climate. He had never suffered in that way in his naval days, and scarcely knew what serious illness meant. Indeed, he had outgrown much of that sensibility of nerve which had made him so curiously open to spiritual or semi-spiritual impressions.
'Any way,' he said, 'the thing is right to be done, provided my mother does not make an absolute point of my giving it up; and whether she does or not depends a good deal on how you others put it to her.'
'Right on Mr. Castleford's account?' I asked.
'That is one side of it. To refuse would put him in a serious difficulty; but I could perhaps come home sooner if it were not for this other matter. I told him so far as that it was an object with me to raise this sum in a few years, and he showed me how there is every likelihood of my being able to do so out there. So now I feel in your hands. If you all, and Edward chiefly, set to and persuade my mother that this undertaking is a dangerous business, and that I can only be led to it by inordinate love of riches—'
'That's what she thinks,' pursued Clarence, 'and that I want to be a grander man than my father. That's at the bottom of her mind, I see. Well, if you deplore this, and let her think the place can't do without me, she will come out in her strength and make it my duty to stay at home.'
'It is very tempting,' said Emily.
'We all undertook to give up something.'
'We never thought it would come in this way!'
'We never do,' said Clarence.
'Tell me,' said Martyn, 'is this to content that ghost, poor thing? For it is very hard to believe in her, except in the mullion room in December.'
'Exactly so, Martyn,' he answered. 'Impressions fade, and the intellect fails to accept them. But I do not think that is my motive. We know that a wicked deed was done by our ancestor, and we hardly have the right to pray, "Remember not the sins of our forefathers," unless, now that we know the crime, we attempt what restitution in us lies.'
There was no resisting after this appeal, and after the first shock, my mother was ready to admit that as Clarence owed everything to Mr. Castleford, he could not well desert the firm, if it were really needful for its welfare that he should go out. We got her to look on Mr. Castleford as captain of the ship, and Clarence as first lieutenant; and when she was once convinced that he did not want to aggrandise the family, but to do his duty, she dropped her objections; and we soon saw that the occupations that his absence would impose on her would be a fresh interest in life.
Just as the decision was thus ratified, a packet from Canton arrived for Clarence from Bristol. It was the first reply of young Frith to the tidings of the bequest which had changed the poor clerk to a wealthy man, owning a large proportion of the shares of the prosperous house.
I asked if he were coming home, and Clarence briefly replied that he did not know,—'it depended—'
'Is he going to wed a fair Chinese with lily feet?' asked Martyn, to which the reply was an unusually discourteous 'Bosh,' as Clarence escaped with his letter. He was so reticent about it that I required a solemn assurance that poor Lawrence's head had not been turned by his fortune, and that there was nothing wrong with him. Indeed, there was great stupidity in never guessing the purport of that thick letter, nor that it contained one for Emily, where Lawrence Frith laid himself, and all that he had, at her feet, ascribing to her all the resolution with which he had kept from evil, and entreating permission to come home and endeavour to win her heart. We lived so constantly together that it is surprising that Clarence contrived to give the letter to Emily in private. She implored him to say nothing to us, and brought him the next day her letter of uncompromising refusal.
He asked whether it would have been the same if he had intended to remain at home.
'As if you were a woman, you conceited fellow,' was all the answer she vouchsafed him.
Nor could he ascertain, nor perhaps would she herself examine, on which side lay her heart of hearts. The proof had come whether she would abide by her pledge to him to accept the care of us in his absence. When he asked it, it had not occurred to him that it might be a renunciation of marriage. Now he perceived that so it had been, but she kept her counsel and so did he. We others never guessed at what was going on between those two.
CHAPTER XLIV—PAYING THE COST
'But oh! the difference to me.'
So Clarence was gone, and our new life begun in its changed aspect. Emily showed an almost feverish eagerness to make it busy and cheerful, getting up a sewing class in the village, resuming the study of Greek, grappling with the natural system in botany, all of which had been fitfully proposed but hindered by interruptions and my father's feebleness.
On a suggestion of Mr. Stafford's, we set to work on that History of Letter Writing which, what with collecting materials, and making translations, lasted us three years altogether, and was a great resource and pleasure, besides ultimately bringing in a fraction towards the great purpose. Emily has confessed that she worked away a good deal of vague, weary depression, and sense of monotony into those Greek choruses: but to us she was always a sunbeam, with her ever ready attention, and the playfulness which resumed more of genuine mirth after the first effort and strain of spirits were over.
Then journal-letters on either side began to bridge the gulf of separation,—those which, minus all the specially interesting portions, are to be seen in the volume we culled from them, and which had considerable success in its day.
Martyn worked in the parish and read with Mr. Henderson till he was old enough for Ordination, and then took the curacy of St. Wulstan's, under a hardworking London vicar, and thenceforth his holidays were our festivals. Our old London friends pitied us for what they viewed as a fearfully dull life, and in the visits they occasionally paid us thought they were doing us a great favour by bringing us new ideas and shooting our partridges.
We hardly deserved their compassion: our lives were full of interest to ourselves—that interest which comes of doing ever so feeble a stroke of work in one great cause; and there was much keen participation in the general life of the Church in the crisis through which she was passing. We found that, what with drawing pictures, writing little books, preparing lessons for teachers, and much besides which is now ready done by the National Society and Sunday School Institute, we could do a good deal to assist Martyn in his London work, and our own grew upon us.
For the first year of her widowhood, my mother shrank from society, and afterwards had only spasmodic fits of doubt whether it were not her duty to make my sister go out more. So that now and then Emily did go to a party, or to make a visit of some days or weeks from home, and then we knew how valuable she was. It would be hard to say whether my mother were relieved or disappointed when Emily refused James Eastwood, in spite of many persuasions, not only from himself, but his family. I believe mamma thought it selfish to be glad, and that it was a failure in duty not to have performed that weighty matter of marrying her daughter; feeling in some way inferior to ladies who had disposed of a whole flock under five and twenty, whereas she had not been able to get rid of a single one!
Of Clarence's doings in China I need not speak; you have read of them in the book for yourselves, and you know how his work prospered, so that the results more than fulfilled his expectations, and raised the firm to the pitch of greatness and reputation which it has ever since preserved, and this without soiling his hands with the miserable opium traffic. Some of the subordinates were so set on the gains to be thus obtained, that he and Lawrence Frith had a severe struggle with them to prevent it, and were forced conjointly to use all their authority as principals to make it impossible. Those two were the greatest of friends. Their chief relaxation was one another's company, and their earnest aim was to support the Christian mission, and to keep up the tone of their English dependants, a terribly difficult matter, and one that made the time of their return somewhat doubtful, even when Walter Castleford was gone out to relieve them. Their health had kept up so well that we had ceased to be anxious on that point, and it was through the Castlefords that we received the first hint that Clarence might not be as well as his absence of complaint had led us to believe.
In fact he had never been well since a terrible tempest, when he had worked hard and exposed himself to save life. I never could hear the particulars, for Lawrence was away, and Clarence could not write about it himself, having been prostrated by one of those chills so perilous in hot countries; but from all I have heard, no resident in Hong-Kong would have believed that Mr. Winslow's courage could ever have been called in question. He ought to have come home immediately after that attack of fever; for the five years were over, and his work nearly done; but there was need to consolidate his achievements, and a strong man is only too apt to trifle with his health. We might have guessed something by the languor and brevity of his letters, but we thought the absence of detail owing to his expectation of soon seeing us; and had gone on for months expecting the announcement of a speedy return, when an unexpected shock fell on us. Our dear mother was still an active woman, with few signs of age about her, when, in her sixty-seventh year, she was almost suddenly taken from us by an attack of gout in the stomach.
I feel as if I had not done her justice, and as if she might seem stern, unsympathising, and lacking in tenderness. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. She was an old-fashioned mother, who held it her duty to keep up her authority, and counted over- familiarity and indulgence as sins. To her 'the holy spirit of discipline was the beginning of wisdom,' and to make her children godly, truthful, and honourable was a much greater object than to win their love. And their love she had, and kept to a far higher degree than seems to be the case with those who court affection by caresses and indulgence. We knew that her approval was of a generous kind, we prized enthusiastically her rare betrayals of her motherly tenderness, and we depended on her in a manner we only realised in the desolation, dreariness, and helplessness that fell upon us, when we knew that she was gone. She had not, nor had any of us, understood that she was dying, and she had uttered only a few words that could imply any such thought. On hearing that there was a letter from Clarence, she said, 'Poor Clarence! I should like to have seen him. He is a good boy after all. I've been hard on him, but it will all be right now. God Almighty bless him!'
That was the only formal blessing she left among us. Indeed, the last time I saw her was with an ordinary good-night at the foot of the stairs. Emily said she was glad that I had not to carry with me the remembrance of those paroxysms of suffering. My dear Emily had alone the whole force of that trial—or shall I call it privilege? Martyn did not reach home till some hours after all was over, poor boy.
And in the midst of our desolateness, just as we had let the daylight in again upon our diminished numbers round the table, came a letter from Hong-Kong, addressed to me in Lawrence Frith's writing, and the first thing I saw was a scrawl, as follows:-
'DEAREST TED—All is in your hands. You can do IT. God bless you all. W. C. W.'
When I came to myself, and could see and hear, Martyn was impressing on me that where there is life there is hope, though indeed, according to poor Lawrence's letter, there was little of either. He feared our hearing indirectly, and therefore wrote to prepare us.
He had been summoned to Hong-Kong to find Clarence lying desperately ill, for the most part semi-delirious, holding converse with invisible forms, or entreating some one to let him alone—he had done his best. In one of his more lucid intervals he had made Lawrence find that note in a case that lay near him, and promise to send it; and he had tried to send some messages, but they had become confused, and he was too weak to speak further.
The next mail was sure to bring the last tidings of one who had given his life for right and justice. It was only a reprieve that what it actually brought was the intelligence that he was still alive, and more sensible, and had been able to take much pleasure in seeing the friend of his youth, Captain Coles, who was there with his ship, the Douro. Then there had been a relapse. Captain Coles had brought his doctor to see him, and it had been pronounced that the best chance of saving him was a sea-voyage. The Douro had just received orders to return to England, and Coles had offered to take home both the friends as guests, though there was evidently little hope that our brother would reach any earthly home. As we knew afterwards, he had smiled and said it was like rehabilitation to have the chance of dying on board one of H.M. ships. And he was held in such respect, and was so entirely one of the leading men of the little growing colony, and had been known as such a friend to the naval men, and had so gallantly aided a Queen's ship in that hurricane, that his passage home in this manner only seemed a natural tribute of respect. A few last words from Lawrence told us that he was safely on board, all unconscious of the silent, almost weeping, procession that had escorted his litter to the Douro's boat, only too much as if it were his bier. In fact, Captain Coles actually promised him that if he died at sea he should be buried with the old flag.
We could not hope to hear more for at least six weeks, since our letter had come by overland mail, and the Douro would take her time. It was a comfort in this waiting time that Martyn could be with us. His rector had been promoted; there was a general change of curates; and as Martyn had been working up to the utmost limits of his strength, we had no scruple in inducing him to remain with us, and undertake nothing fresh till this crisis was past. Though as to rest, not one Sunday passed without requests for his assistance from one or more of the neighbouring clergy.
'And hopes and fears that kindle hope, An undistinguishable throng, And gentle wishes long subdued - Subdued and cherished long.'
S. T. COLERIDGE.
The first that we did hear of our brother was a letter with a Falmouth postmark, which we scarcely dared to open. There was not much in it, but that was enough. 'D. G.- I shall see you all again. We put in at Portsmouth.'
There was no staying at home after that. We three lost no time in starting, for railways had become available, and by the time we had driven from the station at Portsmouth the Douro had been signalled.
Martyn took a boat and went on board alone, for besides that Emily did not like to leave me, her dress would have been a revelation that ALL were no longer there to greet the arrival. The precaution was, however, unnecessary. There stood Clarence on deck, and after the first greeting, he laid his hand on Martyn's arm and said, 'My mother is gone?' and on the wondering assent, 'I was quite sure of it.'
So they came ashore, Clarence lying in the man-of-war's boat, in which his friend insisted on sending him, able now to give a smiling response and salute to the three cheers with which the crew took leave of him. He was carried up to our hotel on a stretcher by half-a-dozen blue jackets. Indeed he was grievously changed, looking so worn and weak, so hollow-eyed and yellow, and so fearfully wasted, that the very memory is painful; and able to do nothing but lie on the sofa holding Emily's hand, gazing at us with a face full of ineffable peace and gladness. There was a misgiving upon me that he had only come back to finish his work and bid us farewell.
Kindly and considerately they had sent him on before with Martyn. In a quarter of an hour's time his good doctor came in with Lawrence Frith, a considerable contrast to our poor Clarence, for the slim gypsy lad had developed into a strikingly handsome man, still slender and lithe, but with a fine bearing, and his bronzed complexion suiting well with his dark shining hair and beautiful eyes. They had brought some of the luggage, and the doctor insisted that his patient should go to bed directly, and rest completely before trying to talk.
Then we heard that his condition, though still anxious, was far from being hopeless, and that after the tropics had been passed, he had been gradually improving. The kind doctor had got leave to go up to London with us, and talk over the case with L—-, and he hoped Clarence might be able to bear the journey by the next afternoon.
Presently after came Captain Coles, whom we had not seen since the short visit when we had idolised the big overgrown midshipman, whom Clarence exhibited to our respectful and distant admiration nearly twenty years ago. My mother used to call him a gentlemanly lad, and that was just what he was still, with a singularly soft gentle manner, gallant officer and post-captain as he was. He cheered me much, for he made no doubt of Clarence's ultimate recovery, and he added that he had found the dear fellow so valued and valuable, so useful in all good works, and so much respected by all the English residents, 'that really,' said the captain, 'I did not know whether to deplore that the service should have lost such a man, or whether to think it had been a good thing for him, though not for us, that— that he got into such a scrape.'
I said something of our thanks.
'To tell you the truth,' said Coles, 'I had my doubts whether it had not been a cruel act, for he had a terrible turn after we got him on board, and all the sounds of a Queen's ship revived the past associations, and always of a painful kind in his delirium, till at last, just as I gave him up, the whole character of his fancies seemed to change, and from that time he has been gaining every day.'
We kept the captain to dinner, and gathered a good deal more understanding of the important position to which Clarence had risen by force of character and rectitude of purpose in that strange little Anglo-Chinese colony; and afterwards, I was allowed to make a long visit to Clarence, who, having eaten and slept, was quite ready to talk.
It seemed that the great distress of his illness had been the recurrence—nay, aggravation—of the strange susceptibility of brain and nerve that had belonged to his earlier days, and with it either imagination or perception of the spirit-world. Much that had seemed delirium had belonged to that double consciousness, and he perfectly recollected it. As Coles had said, the sights and sounds of the ship had been a renewal of the saddest time in his life; he could not at night divest himself of the impression that he was under arrest, and the sins of his life gathered themselves in fearful and oppressive array, as if to stifle him, and the phantom of poor Margaret with her lamp—which had haunted him from the beginning of his illness—seemed to taunt him with having been too fainthearted and tardy to be worthy to espouse her cause. The faith to which he tried to cling WOULD seem to fail him in those awful hours, when he could only cry out mechanical prayers for mercy. Then there had come a night when he had heard my mother say, 'All right now; God Almighty bless him.' And therewith the clouds cleared from his mind. The power of FEELING, as well as believing in, the blotting out of sin, returned, the sense of pardon and peace calmed him, and from that time he was fully himself again, 'though,' he said, 'I knew I should not see my mother here.'
If she could only have seen him come home under the Union Jack, cheered by sailors, and carried ashore by them, it would have been to her like restoration. Perhaps Clarence in his dreamy weakness had so felt it, for certainly no other mode of return to Portsmouth, the very place of his degradation, could so have soothed him and effaced those memories. The English sounds were a perfect charm to him, as well as to Lawrence, the commonest street cry, the very slices of bread and butter, anything that was not Chinese, was as water to the thirsty! And wasted as was his face, the quiet rest and joy were ineffable.
Still Portsmouth was not the best place for him, and we were glad that he was well enough to go up to London in the afternoon; intensely delighting in the May beauty of the green meadows, and white blossoming hedgerows, and the Church towers, especially the gray massiveness of Winchester Cathedral. 'Christian tokens,' he said, instead of the gay, gilded pagodas and quaint crumpled roofs he had left. The soft haze seemed to be such a rest after the glare of perpetual clearness.
We were all born Londoners, and looked at the blue fog, and the broad, misty river, and the brooding smoke, with the affection of natives, to the amazement of Lawrence, who had never been in town without being browbeaten and miserable. That he hardly was now, as he sat beside Emily all the way up, though they did not say much to one another.
He told us it was quite a new sensation to walk into the office without timidity, and to have no fears of a biting, crushing speech about his parents or himself; but to have the clerks getting up deferentially as soon as he was known for Mr. Frith. He had hardly ever been allowed by his old uncle to come across Mr. Castleford, who was of course cordial and delighted to receive him, and, without loss of time, set forth to see Clarence.
The consultation with the physician had taken place, and it was not concealed from us that Clarence's health was completely shattered, and his state still very precarious, needing the utmost care to give him any chance of recovering the effects of the last two years, when he had persevered, in spite of warning, in his eagerness to complete his undertaking, and then to secure what he had effected. The upshot of the advice given him was to spend the summer by the seaside, and if he had by that time gathered strength, and surmounted the symptoms of disease, to go abroad, as he was not likely to be able as yet to bear English cold. Business and cares were to be avoided, and if he had anything necessary to be done, it had better be got over at once, so as to be off his mind. Martyn and Frith gathered that the case was thought doubtful, and entirely dependent on constitution and rallying power. Clarence himself seemed almost passive, caring only for our presence and the accomplishment of his task.
We had a blessed thanksgiving for mercies received in the Margaret Street Chapel, as we called what is now All Saints; but he and I were unfit for crowds, and on Sunday morning availed ourselves of a friend's seat in our old church, which felt so natural and homelike to us elders that Martyn was scandalised at our taste. But it was the church of our Confirmation and first Communion, and Clarence rejoiced that it was that of his first home-coming Eucharist. What a contrast was he now to the shrinking boy, scarcely tolerated under his stigmatised name. Surely the Angel had led him all his life through!
How happy we two were in the afternoon, while the others conducted Lawrence to some more noteworthy church.
'Now,' said Clarence, 'let us go down to Beachharbour. It must be done at once. I have been trying to write, and I can't do it,' and his face lighted with a quiet smile which I understood.
So we wrote to the principal hotel to secure rooms, and set forth on Tuesday, leaving Frith to finish with Mr. Castleford what could not be settled in the one business interview that had been held with Clarence on the Monday.
'Ah! well for us all some sweet hope lies Deeply buried from human eyes.'
Things always happen in unexpected ways. During the little hesitation and difficulty that always attend my transits at a station, a voice was heard to say, 'Oh! Papa, isn't that Edward Winslow?' Martyn gave a violent start, and Mr. Fordyce was exclaiming, 'Clarence, my dear fellow, it isn't you! I beg your pardon; you have strength enough left nearly to wring one's hand off!'
'I—I wanted very much to see you, sir,' said Clarence. 'Could you be so good as to appoint a time?'
'See you! We must always be seeing you of course. Let me think. I've got three weddings and a funeral to-morrow, and Simpson coming about the meeting. Come to luncheon—all of you. Mrs. Fordyce will be delighted, and so will somebody else.'
There was no doubt about the somebody else, for Anne's feet were as nearly dancing round Emily as public propriety allowed, and the radiance of her face was something to rejoice in. Say what people will, Englishwomen in a quiet cheerful life are apt to gain rather than lose in looks up to the borders of middle age. Our Emily at two-and-thirty was fair and pleasant to look on; while as for Anne Fordyce at twenty-three, words will hardly tell how lovely were her delicate features, brown eyes, and carnation cheeks, illuminated by that sunshine brightness of her father's, which made one feel better all day for having been beamed upon by either of them. Clarence certainly did, when the good man turned back to say, 'Which hotel? Eh? That's too far off. You must come nearer. I would see you in, but I've got a woman to see before church time, and I'm short of a curate, so I must be sharp to the hour.'
'Can I be of any use?' eagerly asked Martyn. 'I'll follow you as soon as I have got these fellows to their quarters.'
We had Amos with us, and were soon able to release Martyn, after a few compliments on my not being as usual THE invalid; and by and by he came back to take Emily to inspect a lodging, recommended by our friends, close to the beach, and not a stone's throw from the Rectory built by Mr. Fordyce. As we two useless beings sat opposite to each other, looking over the roofs of houses at the blue expanse and feeling the salt breeze, it was no fancy that Clarence's cheek looked less wan, and his eyes clearer, as a smile of content played on his lips. 'Years sit well on her,' he said gaily; and I thought of rewards in store for him.
Then he took this opportunity of consulting me on the chances for Frith, telling of the original offer, and the quiet constancy of his friend, and asking whether I thought Emily would relent. And I answered that I suspected that she would,—'But you must get well first.'
'I begin to think that more possible,' he answered, and my heart bounded as he added, 'she would be satisfied since you would always have a home with US.'
Oh, how much was implied in that monosyllable. He knew it, for a little faint colour came up, as he, shyly, laughed and hesitated, 'That is—if—'
'If' included Mrs. Fordyce's not being ungracious. Nor was she. Emily had found her as kind as in the old days at Hillside, and perfectly ready to bring us into close vicinity. It was not caprice that had made this change, but all possible doubt and risk of character were over, the old wound was in some measure healed, and the friendship had been brought foremost by our recent sorrow and our present anxiety. Anne was in ecstasies over Emily. 'It is so odd,' she said, 'to have grown as old as you, whom I used to think so very grown up,' and she had all her pet plans to display in the future. Moreover, Martyn had been permitted to relieve the Rector from the funeral—a privilege which seemed to gratify him as much as if it had been the liveliest of services.
We were to lunch at the Rectory, and the move of our goods was to be effected while we were there. We found Mrs. Fordyce looking much older, but far less of an invalid than in old times, and there was something more genial and less exclusive in her ways, owing perhaps to the difference of her life among the many classes with whom she was called on to associate.
Somersetshire, Beachharbour, and China occupied our tongues by turns, and we had to begin luncheon without the Rector, who had been hindered by numerous calls; in fact, as Anne warned us, it was a wonder if he got the length of the esplanade without being stopped half-a-dozen times.
His welcome was like himself, but he needed a reminder of Clarence's request for an interview. Then we repaired to the study, for Clarence begged that his brothers might be present, and then the beginning was made. 'Do you remember my showing you a will that I found in the ruins at Chantry House?'
'A horrid old scrap that you chose to call one. Yes; I told you to burn it.'
'Sir, we have proved that a great injustice was perpetrated by our ancestor, Philip Winslow, and that the poor lady who made that will was cruelly treated, if not murdered. This is no fancy; I have known it for years past, but it is only now that restitution has become possible.'
'Restitution? What are you talking about? I never wanted the place nor coveted it.'
'No, sir, but the act was our forefather's. You cannot bid us sit down under the consciousness of profiting by a crime. I could not do so before, but I now implore you to let me restore you either Chantry House and the three farms, or their purchase money, according to the valuation made at my father's death. I have it in hand.'
Frank Fordyce walked about the room quite overcome. 'You foolish fellow!' he said, 'Was it for this that you have been toiling and throwing away your health in that pestiferous place? Edward, did you know this?'
'Yes,' I answered. 'Clarence has intended this ever since he found the will.'
'As if that was a will! You consented.'
'We all thought it right.'
He made a gesture of dismay at such folly.
'I do not think you understand how it was, Mr. Fordyce,' said Clarence, who by this time was quivering and trembling as in his boyish days.
'No, nor ever wish to do so. Such matters ought to be forgotten, and you don't look fit to say another word.'
'Edward will tell you,' said Clarence, leaning back.
I had the whole written out, and was about to begin, when the person, with whom there was an appointment, was reported, and we knew that the rest of the day was mapped out.
'Look here,' said Mr. Fordyce, 'leave that with me; I can't give any answer off-hand, except that Don Quixote is come alive again, only too like himself.'
Which was true, for Clarence took long to rally from the effort, and had to be kept quiet for some time in the study where we were left. He examined me on the contents of my paper, and was vexed to hear that I had mentioned the ghost, which he said would discredit the whole. Never was the dear fellow so much inclined to be fretful, and when Martyn restlessly observed that if we did not want him, he might as well go back to the drawing-room, the reply was quite sharp—'Oh yes, by all means.'
No wonder there was pain in the tone; for the next words, after some interval, were, when two happy voices came ringing in from the garden behind, 'You see, Edward.'
Somehow I had never thought of Martyn. He had simply seemed to me a boy, and I had decided that Anne would be the crown of Clarence's labours. I answered 'Nonsense; they are both children together!'
'The nonsense was elsewhere,' he said. 'They always were devoted to each other. I saw how it was the moment he came into the room.'
'Don't give up,' I said; 'it is only the old habit. When she knows all, she must prefer—'
'Hush!' he said. 'An old scarecrow and that beautiful young creature!' and he laughed.
'You won't be an old scarecrow long.'
'No,' he said in an ominous way, and cut short the discussion by going back to Mrs. Fordyce.
He was worn out, had a bad night, and did not get up to breakfast; I was waiting for it in the sitting-room, when Mr. Fordyce came in after matins with Emily and Martyn.
'I feel just like David when they brought him the water of Bethlehem,' he said. 'You know I think this all nonsense, especially this—this ghost business; and yet, such—such doings as your brother's can't go for nothing.'
His face worked, and the tears were in his eyes; then, as he partook of our breakfast, he cross-examined us on my statement, and even tried to persuade us that the phantom in the ruin was Emily; and on her observing that she could not have seen herself, he talked of the Brocken Spectre and fog mirages; but we declared the night was clear, and I told him that all the rational theories I had ever heard were far more improbable than the appearance herself, at which he laughed. Then he scrupulously demanded whether this—this (he failed to find a name for it) would be an impoverishment of our family, and I showed how Clarence had provided that we should be in as easy circumstances as before. In the midst came in Clarence himself, having hastened to dress, on hearing that Mr. Fordyce was in the house, and looking none the better for the exertion.
'Look here, my dear boy,' said Frank, taking his hot trembling hand, 'you have put me in a great fix. You have done the noblest deed at a terrible cost, and whatever I may think, it ought not to be thrown away, nor you be hindered from freeing your soul from this sense of family guilt. But here, my forefathers had as little right to the Chantry as yours, and ever since I began to think about such things, I have been thankful it was none of mine. Let us join in giving it or its value to some good work for God—pour it out to the Lord, as we may say. Bless me! what have I done now.'
For Clarence, muttering 'thank you,' sank out of his grasp on a chair, and as nearly as possible fainted; but he was soon smiling and saying it was all relief, and he felt as if a load he had been bearing had been suddenly removed.
Frank Fordyce durst stay no longer, but laid his hand on Clarence's head and blessed him.
CHAPTER XLVII—THE FORDYCE STORY
'For soon as once the genial plain Has drunk the life-blood of the slain, Indelible the spots remain, And aye for vengeance call.'
Still all was not over, for by the next day our brother was as ill, or worse, than ever. The doctor who came from London allowed that he had expected something of the kind, but thought we must have let him exert himself perilously. Poor innocent Martyn and Anne, they little suspected that their bright eyes and happy voices had something to do with the struggle and disappointment, which probably was one cause of the collapse. As to poor Frank Fordyce, I never saw him so distressed; he felt as if it were all his own fault, or that of his ancestors, and, whenever he was not required by his duties, was lingering about for news. I had little hope, though Clarence seemed to me the very light of my eyes; it was to me as though, his task being accomplished, and the earthly reward denied, he must be on his way to the higher one.
His complete quiescence confirmed me in the assurance that he thought so himself. He was too ill for speech, but Lawrence, who could not stay away, was struck with the difference from former times. Not only were there no delusions, but there was no anxiety or uneasiness, as there had always been in the former attacks, when he was evidently eager to live, and still more solicitous to be told if he were in a hopeless state. Now he had plainly resigned himself -
'Content to live, but not afraid to die;'
and perhaps, dear fellow, it was chiefly for my sake that he was willing to live. At least, I know that when the worst was over, he announced it by putting those wasted fingers into mine, and saying -
'Well, dear old fellow, I believe we shall jog on together, after all.'
That attack, though the most severe of all, brought, either owing to skilful treatment or to his own calm, the removal of the mischief, and the beginning of real recovery. Previously he had given himself no time, but had hurried on to exertions which retarded his cure, so as very nearly to be fatal; but he was now perfectly submissive to whatever physicians or nurses desired, and did not seem to find his slow convalescence in the least tedious, since he was amongst us all again.