Chapter XIX--The White Feather
 
'The white doe's milk is not out of his mouth.'

SCOTT.

Clarence had come home free from all blots. His summer holiday had been prevented by the illness of one of the other clerks, whose place, Mr. Castleford wrote, he had so well supplied that ere long he would be sure to earn his promotion. That kind friend had several times taken him to spend a Sunday in the country, and, as we afterwards had reason to think, would have taken more notice of him but for the rooted belief of Mr. Frith that it was a case of favouritism, and that piety and strictness were assumed to throw dust in the eyes of his patron.

Such distrust had tended to render Clarence more reserved than ever, and it was quite by the accident of finding him studying one of Mrs. Trimmer's Manuals that I discovered that, at the request of his good Rector, he had become a Sunday-school teacher, and was as much interested as the enthusiastic girls; but I was immediately forbidden to utter a word on the subject, even to Emily, lest she should tell any one.

Such reserve was no doubt an outcome of his natural timidity. He had to bear a certain amount of scorn and derision among some of his fellow-clerks for the stricter habits and observances that could not be concealed, and he dreaded any fresh revelation of them, partly because of the cruel imputation of hypocrisy, partly because he feared the bringing a scandal on religion by his weakness and failures.

Nor did our lady visitors' ways reassure him, though they meant to be kind. They could not help being formal and stiff, not as they were with Griff and me. The two gentlemen were thoroughly friendly and hearty; Parson Frank could hardly have helped being so towards any one in the same house with himself; and as to little Anne, she found in the new-comer a carpenter and upholsterer superior even to Martyn; but her candour revealed a great deal which I overheard one afternoon, when the two children were sitting together on the hearth-rug in the bookroom in the twilight.

'I want to see Mr. Clarence's white feather,' observed Anne.

'Griff has a white plume in his Yeomanry helmet,' replied Martyn; 'Clarence hasn't one.'

'Oh, I saw Mr. Griffith's!' she answered; 'but Cousin Horace said Mr. Clarence showed the white feather.'

'Cousin Horace is an ape!' cried Martyn.

'I don't think he is so nice as an ape,' said Anne. 'He is more like a monkey. He tries the dolls by court-martial, and he shot Arabella with a pea-shooter, and broke her eye; only grandpapa made him have it put in again with his own money, and then he said I was a little sneak, and if I ever did it again he would shoot me.'

'Mind you don't tell Clarence what he said,' said Martyn.

'Oh, no! I think Mr. Clarence very nice indeed; but Horace did tease so about that day when he carried poor Amos Bell home. He said Ellen had gone and made friends with the worst of all the wicked Winslows, who had shown the white feather and disgraced his flag. No; I know you are not wicked. And Mr. Griff came all glittering, like Richard Coeur de Lion, and saved us all that night. But Ellen cried to think what she had done, and mamma said it showed what it was to speak to a strange young man; and she has never let Ellen and me go out of the grounds by ourselves since that day.'

'It is a horrid shame,' exclaimed Martyn, 'that a fellow can't get into a scrape without its being for ever cast up to him.'

'I like him,' said Anne. 'He gave Mary Bell a nice pair of boots, and he made a new pair of legs for poor old Arabella, and she can really sit down! Oh, he is very nice; but'--in an awful whisper-- 'does he tell stories? I mean fibs--falsehoods.'

'Who told you that?' exclaimed Martyn.

'Mamma said it. Ellen was telling them something about the picture of the white-satin lady, and mamma said, "Oh, if it is only that young man, no doubt it is a mere mystification;" and papa said, "Poor young fellow, he seems very amiable and well disposed;" and mamma said, "If he can invent such a story it shows that Horace was right, and he is not to be believed." Then they stopped, but I asked Ellen who it was, and she said it was Mr. Clarence, and it was a sad thing for Emily and all of you to have such a brother.'

Martyn began to stammer with indignation, and I thought it time to interfere; so I called the little maid, and gravely explained the facts, adding that poor Clarence's punishment had been terrible, but that he was doing his best to make up for what was past; and that, as to anything he might have told, though he might be mistaken, he never said anything now but what he believed to be true. She raised her brown eyes to mine full of gravity, and said, 'I do like him.' Moreover, I privately made Martyn understand that if he told her what had been said about the white-satin lady, he would never be forgiven; the others would be sure to find it out, and it might shorten their stay.

That was a dreadful idea, for the presence of those two creatures, to say nothing of their parents, was an unspeakable charm and novelty to us all. We all worshipped the elder, and the little one was like a new discovery and toy to us, who had never been used to such a presence. She was not a commonplace child; but even if she had been, she would have been as charming a study as a kitten; and she had all the four of us at her feet, though her mother was constantly protesting against our spoiling her, and really kept up so much wholesome discipline that the little maid never exceeded the bounds of being charming to us. After that explanation there was the same sweet wistful gentleness in her manner towards Clarence as she showed to me; while he, who never dreamt of such a child knowing his history was brighter and freer with her than with any one else, played with her and Martyn, and could be heard laughing merrily with them. Perhaps her mother and sister did not fully like this, but they could not interfere before our faces. And Parson Frank was really kind to him; took him out walking when going to Hillside, and talked to him so as to draw him out; certifying, perhaps, that he would do no harm, although, indeed, the family looked on dear good Frank as a sort of boy, too kind-hearted and genial for his approval to be worth as much as that of the more severe.

These were our only Christmas visitors, for the state of the country did not invite Londoners; but we did not want them. The suppression of Clarence was the only flaw in a singularly happy time; and, after all I believe I felt the pity of it more than he did, who expected nothing, and was accustomed to being in the background.

For instance, one afternoon in the course of one of the grave discussions that used to grow up between Miss Fordyce, Emily, and me, over subjects trite to the better-instructed younger generation, we got quite out of our shallow depths. I think it was on the meaning of the 'Communion of Saints,' for the two girls were both reading in preparation for a Confirmation at Bristol, and Miss Fordyce knew more than we did on these subjects. All the time Clarence had sat in the window, carving a bit of doll's furniture, and quite forgotten; but at night he showed me the exposition copied from Pearson on the Creed, a bit of Hooker, and extracts from one or two sermons. I found these were notes written out in a blank book, which he had had in hand ever since his Confirmation--his logbook as he called it; but he would not hear of their being mentioned even to Emily, and only consented to hunt up the books on condition I would not bring him forward as the finder. It was of no use to urge that it was a deprivation to us all that he should not aid us with his more thorough knowledge and deeper thought. 'He could not do so,' he said, in a quiet decisive manner; 'it was enough for him to watch and listen to Miss Fordyce, when she could forget his presence.'

She often did forget it in her eagerness. She was by nature one of the most ardent beings that I ever saw, yet with enthusiasm kept in check by the self-control inculcated as a primary duty. It would kindle in those wonderful light brown eyes, glow in the clear delicate cheek, quiver in the voice even when the words were only half adequate to the feeling. She was not what is now called gushing. Oh, no! not in the least! She was too reticent and had too much dignity for anything of the kind. Emily had always been reckoned as our romantic young lady, and teased accordingly, but her enthusiasm beside Ellen's was

'As moonlight is to sunlight, as water is to wine,' -

a mere reflection of the tone of the period, compared with a real element in the character. At least so my sister tells me, though at the time all the difference I saw was that Miss Fordyce had the most originality, and unconsciously became the leader. The bookroom was given up to us, and there in the morning we drew, worked, read, copied and practised music, wrote out extracts, and delivered our youthful minds to one another on all imaginable topics from 'slea silk to predestination.'

Religious subjects occupied us more than might have been held likely. A spirit of reflection and revival was silently working in many a heart. Evangelicalism had stirred old-fashioned orthodoxy, and we felt its action. The Christian Year was Ellen's guiding star--as it was ours, nay, doubly so in proportion to the ardour of her nature. Certain poems are dearer and more eloquent to me still, because the verses recall to me the thrill of her sweet tones as she repeated them. We were all very ignorant alike of Church doctrine and history, but talking out and comparing our discoveries and impressions was as useful as it was pleasant to us.

What the Christian Year was in religion to us Scott was in history. We read to verify or illustrate him, and we had little raving fits over his characters, and jokes founded on them. Indeed, Ellen saw life almost through that medium; and the siege of Hillside, dispersed by the splendid prowess of Griffith, the champion with silver helm and flashing sword, was precious to her as a renewal of the days of Ivanhoe or Damian de Lacy.

As may be believed, these quiet mornings were those when that true knight was employed in field sports or yeomanry duties, such as the state of the country called for. When he was at home, all was fun and merriment and noise--walks and rides on fine days, battledore and shuttlecock on wet ones, music, singing, paper games, giggling and making giggle, and sometimes dancing in the hall--Mr. Frank Fordyce joining with all his heart and drollery in many of these, like the boy he was.

I could play quadrilles and country dances, and now and then a reel- -nobody thought of waltzes--and the three couples changed and counterchanged partners. Clarence had the sailor's foot, and did his part when needed; Emily generally fell to his share, and their silence and gravity contrasted with the mirth of the other pairs. He knew very well he was the pis aller of the party, and only danced when Parson Frank was not dragged out, nothing loth, by his little daughter. With Miss Fordyce, Clarence never had the chance of dancing; she was always claimed by Griff, or pounced upon by Martyn.

Miss Fordyce she always was to us in those days, and those pretty lips scrupulously 'Mistered' and 'Winslowed' us. I don't think she would have been more to us, if we had called her Nell, and had been Griff, Bill, and Ted to her, or if there had not been all the little formalities of avoiding tete a tetes and the like. They were essentials of propriety then--natural, and never viewed as prudish. Nor did it detract from the sweet dignity of maidenhood that there was none of the familiarity which breeds something one would rather not mention in conjunction with a lady.

Altogether there was a sunshine around Miss Fordyce by which we all seemed illuminated, even the least favoured and least demonstrative; we were all her willing slaves, and thought her smile and thanks full reward.

One day, when Griff and Martyn were assisting at the turn out of an isolated barn at Hillside, where Frank Fordyce declared, all the burnt-out rats and mice had taken refuge, the young ladies went out to cater for house decorations for Christmas under Clarence's escort. Nobody but the clerk ever thought of touching the church, where there were holes in all the pews to receive the holly boughs.

The girls came back, telling in eager scared voices how, while gathering butcher's broom in Farmer Hodges' home copse, a savage dog had flown out at them, but had been kept at bay by Mr. Clarence Winslow with an umbrella, while they escaped over the stile.

Clarence had not come into the drawing-room with them, and while my mother, who had a great objection to people standing about in out- door garments, sent them up to doff their bonnets and furs, I repaired to our room, and was horrified to find him on my bed, white and faint.

'Bitten?' I cried in dismay.

'Yes; but not much. Only I'm such a fool. I turned off when I began taking off my boots. No, no--don't! Don't call any one. It is nothing!'

He was springing up to stop me, but was forced to drop back, and I made my way to the drawing-room, where my mother happened to be alone. She was much alarmed, but a glass of wine restored Clarence; and inspection showed that the thick trowser and winter stocking had so protected him that little blood had been drawn, and there was bruise rather than bite in the calf of the leg, where the brute had caught him as he was getting over the stile as the rear-guard. It was painful, though the faintness was chiefly from tension of nerve, for he had kept behind all the way home, and no one had guessed at the hurt. My mother doctored it tenderly, and he begged that nothing should be said about it; he wanted no fuss about such a trifle. My mother agreed, with the proud feeling of not enhancing the obligations of the Fordyce family; but she absolutely kissed Clarence's forehead as she bade him lie quiet till dinner-time.

We kept silence at table while the girls described the horrors of the monster. 'A tawny creature, with a hideous black muzzle,' said Emily. 'Like a bad dream,' said Miss Fordyce. The two fathers expressed their intention of remonstrating with the farmer, and Griff declared that it would be lucky if he did not shoot it. Miss Fordyce generously took its part, saying the poor dog was doing its duty, and Griff ejaculated, 'If I had been there!'

'It would not have dared to show its teeth, eh?' said my father, when there was a good deal of banter.

My father, however, came at night with mamma to inspect the hurt and ask details, and he ended with, 'Well done, Clarence, boy; I am gratified to see you are acquiring presence of mind, and can act like a man.'

Clarence smiled when they were gone, saying, 'That would have been an insult to any one else.'

Emily perceived that he had not come off unscathed, and was much aggrieved at being bound to silence. 'Well,' she broke out, 'if the dog goes mad, and Clarence has the hydrophobia, I suppose I may tell.'

'In that pleasing contingency,' said Clarence smiling. 'Don't you see, Emily, it is the worst compliment you can pay me not to treat this as a matter of course?' Still, he was the happier for not having failed. Whatever strengthened his self-respect and gave him trust in himself was a stepping-stone.

As to rivalry or competition with Griff, the idea seemingly never crossed his mind, and envy or jealousy were equally aloof from it. One subject of thankfulness runs through these recollections-- namely, that nothing broke the tie of strong affection between us three brothers. Griffith might figure as the 'vary parfite knight,' the St. George of the piece, glittering in the halo shed round him by the bright eyes of the rescued damsel; while Clarence might drag himself along as the poor recreant to be contemned and tolerated, and he would accept the position meekly as only his desert, without a thought of bitterness. Indeed, he himself seemed to have imbibed Nurse Gooch's original opinion, that his genuine love for sacred things was a sort of impertinence and pretension in such as he--a kind of hypocrisy even when they were the realities and helps to which he clung with all his heart. Still, this depression was only shown by reserve, and troubled no one save myself, who knew him best guessed what was lost by his silence, and burned in spirit at seeing him merely endured as one unworthy.

In one of our varieties of Waverley discussions the crystal hardness and inexperienced intolerance of youth made Miss Fordyce declare that had she been Edith Plantagenet, she would never, never have forgiven Sir Kenneth. 'How could she, when he had forsaken the king's banner? Unpardonable!'

Then came a sudden, awful silence, as she recollected her audience, and blushed crimson with the misery of perceiving where her random shaft had struck, nor did either of us know what to say; but to our surprise it was Clarence who first spoke to relieve the desperate embarrassment. 'Is forgiven quite the right word, when the offence was not personal? I know that such things can neither be repaired nor overlooked, and I think that is what Miss Fordyce meant.'

'Oh, Mr. Winslow,' she exclaimed, 'I am very sorry--I don't think I quite meant'--and then, as her eyes for one moment fell on his subdued face, she added, 'No, I said what I ought not. If there is sorrow'--her voice trembled--'and pardon above, no one below has any right to say unpardonable.'

Clarence bowed his head, and his lips framed, but he did not utter, 'Thank you.' Emily nervously began reading aloud the page before her, full of the jingling recurring rhymes about Sir Thomas of Kent; but I saw Ellen surreptitiously wipe away a tear, and from that time she was more kind and friendly with Clarence.