Chapter XIII--A Scrape
 
'Though bound with weakness' heavy chain
We in the dust of earth remain;
Not all remorseful be our tears,
No agony of shame or fears,
Need pierce its passion's bitter tide.'

Verses and Sonnets.

Perhaps it was of set purpose that our dinner. party had been given before Clarence's return. Griffith had been expected in time for it, but he had preferred going by way of London to attend a ball given by the daughter of a barrister friend of my father's. Selina Clarkson was a fine showy girl, with the sort of beauty to inspire boyish admiration, and Griff's had been a standing family joke, even my father condescending to tease him when the young lady married Sir Henry Peacock, a fat vulgar old man who had made his fortune in the commissariat, and purchased a baronetcy. He was allowing his young wife her full swing of fashion and enjoyment. My mother did not think it a desirable acquaintance, and was restless until both the brothers came home together, long after dark on Christmas Eve, having been met by the gig at the corner where the coach stopped. The dinner-hour had been put off till half-past six, and we had to wait for them, the coach having been delayed by setting down Christmas guests and Christmas fare. They were a contrast; Griffith looking very handsome and manly, all in a ruddy glow from the frosty air, and Clarence, though equally tall, well-made, and with more refined features, looked pale and effaced, now that his sailor tan was worn off. The one talked as eagerly as he ate, the other was shy, spiritless, and with little appetite; but as he always shrank into himself among strangers, it was the less wonder that he sat in his drooping way behind my sofa, while Griffith kept us all merry with his account of the humours of the 'Peacock at home;' the lumbering efforts of old Sir Henry to be as young and gay as his wife, in spite of gout and portliness; and the extreme delight of his lady in her new splendours--a gold spotted muslin and white plumes in a diamond agraffe. He mimicked Sir Henry's cockneyisms more than my father's chivalry approved towards his recent host, as he described the complaints he had heard against 'my Lady being refused the hentry at Halmack's, but treated like the wery canal;' and how the devoted husband 'wowed he would get up a still more hexclusive circle, and shut hout these himpertinent fashionables who regarded Halmack's as the seventh 'eaven.'

My mother shook her head at his audacious fun about Paradise and the Peri, but he was so brilliant and good-humoured that no one was ever long displeased with him. At night he followed when Clarence helped me to my room, and carefully shutting the door, Griff began. 'Now, Teddy, you're always as rich as a Jew, and I told Bill you'd help him to set it straight. I'd do it myself, but that I'm cleaned out. I'd give ten times the cash rather than see him with that hang-dog look again for just nothing at all, if he would only believe so and be rational.'

Clarence did look indescribably miserable while it was explained that he had been commissioned to receive about 20 pounds which was owing to my father, and to discharge therewith some small debts to London tradesmen. All except the last, for a little more than four pounds, had been paid, when Clarence met in the street an old messmate, a good-natured rattle-pated youth,--one of those who had thought him harshly treated. There was a cordial greeting, and an invitation to dine at once at a hotel, where they were joined by some other young men, and by and by betook themselves to cards, when my poor brother's besetting enemy prevented him from withdrawing when he found the points were guineas. Thus he lost the remaining amount in his charge, and so much of his own that barely enough was left for his journey. His salary was not due till Lady Day; Mr. Castleford was in the country, and no advances could be asked from Mr. Frith. Thus Griff had found him in utter despair, and had ever since been trying to cheer him and make light of his trouble. If I advanced the amount, which was no serious matter to me, Clarence could easily get Peter to pay the bill, and if my father should demand the receipt too soon, it would be easy to put him off by saying there had been a delay in getting the account sent in.

'I couldn't do that,' said Clarence.

'Well, I should not have thought you would have stuck at that,' returned Griff.

'There must be no untruth,' I broke in; 'but if without that, he can avoid getting into a scrape with papa--'

Clarence interrupted in the wavering voice we knew so well, but growing clearer and stronger.

'Thank you, Edward, but--but--no, I can't. There's the Sacrament to-morrow.'

'Oh--h!' said Griff, in an indescribable tone. But he will never believe you, nor let you go.'

'Better so,' said Clarence, half choked, 'than go profanely-- deceiving--or not knowing whether I shall--'

Just then we heard our father wishing the other gentlemen good- night, and to our surprise Clarence opened the door, though he was deadly white and with dew starting on his forehead.

My father turned good-naturedly. 'Boys, boys, you are glad to be together, but mamma won't have you talking here all night, keeping her baby up.'

'Sir,' said Clarence, holding by the rail of the bed, 'I was waiting for you. I have something to tell you--'

The words that followed were incoherent and wrong end foremost; nor had many, indeed, been uttered before my father cut them short with -

'No false excuses, sir; I know you too well to listen. Go. I have ceased to hope for anything better.'

Clarence went without a word, but Griff and I burst out with entreaties to be listened to. Our father thought at first that ours were only the pleadings of partiality, and endeavours to shield the brother we both so heartily loved; but when he understood the circumstances, the real amount of the transgression, and Clarence's rejection of our united advice and assistance to conceal it, he was greatly touched and softened. 'Poor lad! poor fellow!' he muttered, 'he is really doing his best. I need not have cut him so short. I was afraid of more falsehoods if I let him open his mouth. I'll go and see.'

He went off, and we remained in suspense, Griff observing that he had done his best, but poor Bill always would be a fool, and that no one who had not always lived at home like me would have let out that we had been for the suppression policy. As I was rather shocked, he went off to bed, saying he should look in to see what remained of Clarence after the pelting of the pitiless storm he was sure to bring on himself by his ridiculous faltering instead of speaking out like a man.

I longed to have been able to do the same, but my father kindly came back to relieve my mind by telling me that he was better satisfied about Clarence than ever he had been before. When encouraged to speak out, the narrative of the temptation had so entirely agreed with what we had said as to show there had been no prevarication, and this had done more to convince my father that he was on the right track than the having found him on his knees. He had had a patient hearing, and thus was able to command his nerves enough to explain himself, and it had ended in my father giving entire forgiveness for what, as Griff truly said, would have been a mere trifle but for the past. The voluntary confession had much impressed my father, and he could not help adding a word of gentle reproof to me for having joined in aiding him to withhold it, but he accepted my explanation and went away, observing, 'By the by, I don't wonder at what Griffith says of that room; I never heard such strange effects of currents of air.'

Clarence was in my room before I was drest, full of our father's 'wonderful goodness' to him. He had never experienced anything like it, he said. 'Why! he really seemed hopeful about me,' were words uttered with a gladness enough to go to one's heart. 'O Edward, I feel as if there was some chance of "steadfastly purposing" this time.'

It was not the way of the family to say much of religious feeling, and this was much for Clarence to utter. He looked white and tired, but there was an air of rest and peace about him, above all when my mother met him with a very real kiss. Moreover, Mr. Castleford had taken care to brighten our Christmas with a letter expressive of great satisfaction with Clarence for steadiness and intelligence. Even Mr. Frith allowed that he was the most punctual of all those young dogs.

'I do believe,' said my father, 'that his piety is doing him some good after all.'

So our mutual wishes of a happy Christmas were verified, though not much according to the notions of this half of the century. People made their Christmas day either mere merriment, or something little different from the grave Sunday of that date. And ours, except for the Admiral's dining with us, had always been of the latter description, all the more that when celebrations of the Holy Communion were so rare they were treated with an awe and reverence which frequency has perhaps diminished, and a feeling (possibly Puritanical) prevailed which made it appear incongruous to end with festivity a day so begun. That we had a Christmas Day Communion at all at Earlscombe was an innovation only achieved by Mr. Henderson going to assist the old Rector at Wattlesea; and there were no communicants except from our house, besides Chapman, his daughter- in-law, and five old creatures between whom the alms were immediately divided. We afterwards learnt that our best farmer and his wife were much disappointed at the change from Sunday interfering with the family jollification; and Mrs. Sophia Selby was annoyed at the contradiction to her habits under the rule of her poor dear uncle.

Of the irregularities, irreverences, and squalor of the whole I will not speak. They were not then such stumbling-blocks as they would be now, and many passed unperceived by us, buried as we were in our big pew, with our eyes riveted on our books; yet even thus there was enough evident to make my mother rejoice that Mr. Henderson would be with us before Easter. Still this could not mar the thankful gladness that was with us all that day, and which shone in Clarence's eyes. His countenance always had a remarkable expression in church, as if somehow his spirit went farther than ours did, and things unseen were more real to him.

Hillside, as usual, had two services, and my father and his friend were going to walk thither in the afternoon, but it was a raw cold day, threatening snow, and Emily was caught by my mother in the hail and ordered back, as well as Clarence, who had shown symptoms of having caught cold on his dismal journey. Emily coaxed from her permission to have a fire in the bookroom, and there we three had a memorably happy time. We read our psalms and lessons, and our Christian Year, which was more and more the lodestar of our feelings. We compared our favourite passages, and discussed the obscurer ones, and Clarence was led to talk out more of his heart than he had ever shown to us before. Perhaps he had lost some of his reserve through his intercourse with our good old governess, Miss Newton, who was still grinding away at her daily mill, though with somewhat failing eyesight, so that she could do nothing but knit in the long evenings, and was most grateful to her former pupil for coming, as often as he could, to talk or read to her.

She was a most excellent and devout woman, and when Emily, who in youthful gaiete de coeur had got a little tired of her, exclaimed at his taste, and asked if she made him read nothing but Pike's Early Piety, he replied gravely, 'She showed me where to lay my burthen down,' and turned to the two last verses of the poem for 'Good Friday' in the Christian Year, as well as to the one we had just read on the Holy Communion.

My father's kindness had seemed to him the pledge of the Heavenly Father's forgiveness; and he added, perhaps a little childishly, that it had been his impulse to promise never to touch a card again, but that he dreaded the only too familiar reply, 'What availed his promises?'

'Do promise, Clarry!' cried Emily, 'and then you won't have to play with that tiresome old Mrs. Sophia.'

'That would rather deter me,' said Clarence good-humouredly.

'A card-playing old age is despicable,' pronounced Miss Emily, much to our amusement.

After that we got into a bewilderment. We knew nothing of the future question of temperance versus total abstinence; but after it had been extracted that Miss Newton regarded cards as the devil's books, the inconsistent little sister changed sides, and declared it narrow and evangelical to renounce what was innocent. Clarence argued that what might be harmless for others might be dangerous for such as himself, and that his real difficulty in making even a mental vow was that, if broken, there was an additional sin.

'It is not oneself that one trusts,' I said.

'No,' said Clarence emphatically; 'and setting up a vow seems as if it might be sticking up the reed of one's own word, and leaning on that--when it breaks, at least mine does. If I could always get the grasp of Him that I felt to-day, there would be no more bewildered heart and failing spirit, which are worse than the actual falls they cause.' And as Emily said she did not understand, he replied in words I wrote down and thought over, 'What we are is the point, more than even what we do. We do as we are; and yet we form ourselves by what we do.'

'And,' I put in, 'I know somebody who won a victory last night over himself and his two brothers. Surely doing that is a sign that he is more than he used to be.'

'If he were, it would not have been an effort at all,' said Clarence, but with his rare sweet smile.

Just then Griff called him away, and Emily sat pondering and impressed. 'It did seem so odd,' she said, 'that Clarry should be so much the best, and yet so much the worst of us.'

I agreed. His insight into spiritual things, and his enjoyment of them, always humiliated us both, yet he fell so much lower in practice,--'But then we had not his temptations.'

'Yes,' said Emily; 'but look at Griff! He goes about like other young men, and keeps all right, and yet he doesn't care about religious things a bit more than he can help.'

It was quite true. Religion was life to the one and an insurance to the other, and this had been a mystery to us all our young lives, as far as we had ever reflected on the contrast between the practical failure and success of each. Our mother, on the other hand, viewed Clarence's tendencies as part of an unreal, self-deceptive nature, and regretted his intimacy with Miss Newton, who, she said, had fostered 'that kind of thing' in his childhood--made him fancy talk, feeling, and preaching were more than truth and honour--and might lead him to run after Irving, Rowland Hill, or Baptist Noel, about whose tenets she was rather confused. It would be an additional misfortune if he became a fanatical Evangelical light, and he was just the character to be worked upon.

My father held that she might be thankful for any good influence or safe resort for a young man in lodgings in London, and he merely bade Clarence never resort to any variety of dissenting preacher. We were of the school called--a little later--high and dry, but were strictly orthodox according to our lights, and held it a prime duty to attend our parish church, whatever it might be; nor, indeed, had Clarence swerved from these traditions.

Poor Mrs. Sophia was baulked of the game at whist, which she viewed as a legitimate part of the Christmas pleasures; and after we had eaten our turkey, we found the evening long, except that Martyn escaped to snapdragon with the servants; and, by and by, Chapman, magnificent in patronage, ushered in the church singers into the hall, and clarionet, bassoon, and fiddle astonished our ears.