Chapter XXIX--Love and Obedience
 
'Unless he give me all in change
   I forfeit all things by him;
The risk is terrible and strange.'

MRS. BROWNING.

You will be weary of my lengthiness; and perhaps I am lingering too long over the earlier portion of my narrative. Something is due to the disproportion assumed in our memories by the first twenty years of existence--something, perhaps, to reluctance to passing from comparative sunshine to shadow. There was still a period of brightness, but it was so uneventful that I have no excuse for dwelling on it further than to say that Henderson, our excellent curate, had already made a great difference in the parish, and it was beginning to be looked on as almost equal to Hillside. The children were devoted to Emily, who was the source of all the amenities of their poor little lives. The needlework of the school was my mother's pride; and our church and its services, though you would shudder at them now, were then thought presumptuously superior 'for a country parish.' They were a real delight and blessing to us, as well as to many more of the flock, who still, in their old age, remember and revere Parson Henderson as a sort of apostle.

The dawning of the new Poor-Law led to investigations which revealed the true conditions of the peasant's life--its destitution, recklessness, and dependence. We tried to mend matters by inducing families to emigrate, but this renewed the distrust which had at first beheld in the schools an attempt to enslave the children. Even accounts, sent home by the exceptionally enterprising who did go to Canada, were, we found, scarcely trusted. Amos Bell, who would have gone, if he had not been growing into my special personal attendant, was letter-writer and reader to all his relations, and revealed to us that it had been agreed that no letter should be considered as genuine unless it bore a certain private mark. To be sure, the accounts of prosperity might well sound fabulous to the toilers and moilers at home. Harriet Martineau's Hamlets, which we lent to many of our neighbours, is a fair picture of the state of things. We much enjoyed those tales, and Emily says they were the only political economy she ever learnt.

The model arrangements of our vestries led to a summons to my father and the younger Mr. Fordyce to London, to be examined on the condition of the pauper, and the working of the old Elizabethan Poor-Law.

They were absent for about a fortnight of early spring, and Emily and I could not help observing that our mother was unusually uncommunicative about my father's letters; and, moreover, there was a tremendous revolution of the furniture, a far more ominous token in our household than any comet.

The truth came on us when the two fathers returned. Mine told me himself that Frank Fordyce was so much displeased with Griffith's conduct that he had declared that the engagement could not continue with his consent.

This from good-natured, tender-hearted Parson Frank!

I cried out hotly that 'those Lesters' had done this. They had always been set against us, and any one could talk over Mr. Frank. My father shook his head. He said Frank Fordyce was not weak, but all the stronger for his gentleness and charity; and, moreover, that he was quite right--to our shame and grief be it spoken--quite right.

It was true that the first information had been given by Sir Horace Lester, Mrs. Fordyce's brother, but it had not been lightly spoken like the daughter's chatter; and my father himself had found it only too true, so that he could not conscientiously call Griffith worthy of such a creature as Ellen Fordyce.

Poor Griff, he had been idle and impracticable over his legal studies, which no persuasion would make him view as otherwise than a sort of nominal training for a country gentleman; nor had he ever believed or acted upon the fact that the Earlscombe property was not an unlimited fortune, such as would permit him to dispense with any profession, and spend time and money like the youths with whom he associated. Still, this might have been condoned as part of the effervescence which had excited him ever since my father had succeeded to the estate, and patience might still have waited for greater wisdom; but there had been graver complaints of irregularities, which were forcing his friend to dissolve partnership with him. There was evidence of gambling, which he not only admitted, but defended; and, moreover, he was known at parties, at races, and at the theatre, as one of the numerous satellites who revolved about that gay and conspicuous young fashionable widow, Lady Peacock.

'Yes, Frank has every right to be angry,' said my father, pacing the room. 'I can't wonder at him. I should do the same; but it is destroying the best hope for my poor boy.'

Then he began to wish Clarence had more--he knew not what to call it--in him; something that might keep his brother straight. For, of course, he had talked to Clarence and discovered how very little the brothers saw of one another. Clarence had been to look for Griff in vain more than once, and they had only really met at a Castleford dinner-party. In fact, Clarence's youthful spirits, and the tastes which would have made him companionable to Griff, had been crushed out of him; and he was what more recent slang calls 'such a muff,' that he had perforce drifted out of our elder brother's daily life, as much as if he had been a grave senior of fifty. It was, as he owned, a heavy penalty of his youthful fall that he could not help his brother more effectually.

It appeared that Frank Fordyce, thoroughly roused, had had it out with Griffith, and had declared that his consent was withdrawn and the engagement annulled. Griff, astounded at the resolute tone of one whom he considered as the most good-natured of men, had answered hotly and proudly that he should accept no dismissal except from Ellen herself, and that he had done no more than was expected of any young man of position and estate. On the other indictment he scorned any defence, and the two had parted in mutual indignation. He had, however, shown himself so much distressed at the threat of being deprived of Ellen, that neither my father nor Clarence had the least doubt of his genuine attachment to her, nor that his attentions to Lady Peacock were more than the effect of old habit and love of amusement, and that they had been much exaggerated. He scouted the bare idea of preferring her to Ellen; and, in his second interview with my father, was ready to make any amount of promises of reformation, provided his engagement were continued.

This was on the last evening before leaving town, and he came to the coach-office looking so pale, jaded, and unhappy that Parson Frank's kind heart was touched; and in answer to a muttered 'I've been ten thousand fools, sir, but if you will overlook it I will try to be worthy of her,' he made some reply that could be construed into, 'If you keep to that, all may yet be well. I'll talk to her mother and grandfather.'

Perhaps this was cruel kindness, for, as we well knew, Mrs. Fordyce was far less likely to be tolerant of a young man's failings than was her husband; and she was, besides, a Lester, and might take the same view.

Abusing the Lesters was our great resource; for we did not believe either the sailor or the guardsman to be immaculate, and we knew them to be jealous. We had to remain in ignorance of what we most wished to know, for Ellen was kept away from us, and my mother would not let Emily go in search of her. Only Anne, who was a high- spirited, independent little person, made a sudden rush upon me as I sat in the garden. She had no business to be so far from home alone; but, said she, 'I don't care, it is all so horrid. Please, Edward, is it true that Griff has been so very wicked? I heard the maids talking, and they said papa had found out that he was a bad lot, and that he was not to marry Ellen; but she would stick to him through thick and thin, like poor Kitty Brown who would marry the man that got transported for seven years.' 'Will he be transported, Edward? and would Ellen go too, like the "nut-brown maid?" Is that what she cries so about? Not by day, but all night. I know she does, for her handkerchief is wet through, and there is a wet place on her pillow always in the morning; but she only says, "Never mind," and nobody will tell me. They only say little girls should not think about such things. And I am not so very little. I am eight, and have read the Lay of the Last Minstrel and I know all about people in love. So you might tell me.'

I relieved Anne's mind as to the chances of transportation, and, after considering how many confidences might be honourably exchanged with the child, I explained that her father thought Griff had been idle and careless, and not fit as yet to be trusted with Ellen.

Her parish experience came into play. 'Does papa think he would be like Joe Sparks? But then gentlemen don't beat their wives, nor go to the public-house, nor let their children go about in rags.'

I durst not inquire much, but I gathered that there was a heavy shadow over the house, and that Ellen was striving to do as usual, but breaking down when alone. Just then Parson Frank appeared. Anne had run away from him while on a farming inspection, when the debate over the turnips with the factotum had become wearisome. He looked grave and sorrowful, quite unlike his usual hearty self, and came to me, leaning over my chair, and saying, 'This is sad work, Edward'; and, on an anxious venture of an inquiry for Ellen, 'Poor little maid, it is very sore work with her. She is a good child and obedient--wants to do her duty; but we should never have let it go on so long. We have only ourselves to thank--taking the family character, you see'--and he made a kindly gesture towards me. 'Your father sees how it is, and won't let it make a split between us. I believe that not seeing as much of your sister as usual is one of my poor lassie's troubles, but it may be best--it may be best.'

He lingered talking, unwilling to tear himself away, and ended by disclosing, almost at unawares, that Ellen had held out for a long time, would not understand nor take in what she was told, accepted nothing on Lester authority, declared she understood all about Lady Peacock, and showed a strength of resistance and independence of view that had quite startled her parents, by proving how far their darling had gone from them in heart. But they still held her by the bonds of obedience; and, by dealing with her conscience, her mother had obtained from her a piteous little note -

'MY DEAR GRIFFITH--I am afraid it is true that you have not always seemed to be doing right, and papa and mamma forbid our going on as we are. You know I cannot be disobedient. It would not bring a blessing on you. So I must break off, though--'

The 'though' could be read through an erasure, followed by the initials, E. M. F.--as if the dismal conclusion had been felt to be only too true--and there followed the postscript, 'Forgive me, and, if we are patient, it may come right.'

This letter was displayed, when, on the ensuing evening, it brought Griff down in towering indignation, and trying to prove the coercion that must have been exercised to extract even thus much from his darling. Over he went headlong to Hillside to insist on seeing her, but to encounter a succession of stormy scenes. Mrs. Fordyce was the most resolute, but was ill for a week after. The old Rector was gentle, and somewhat overawed Griff by his compassion, and by representations that were only too true; and Parson Frank, with his tender heart torn to pieces, showed symptoms of yielding another probation.

The interview with Ellen was granted. She, however, was intrenched in obedience. She had promised submission to the rupture of her engagement, and she kept her word,--though she declared that nothing could hinder her love, and that she would wait patiently till her lover had proved himself, to everybody's satisfaction, as good and noble as she knew him to be. When he told her she did not love him she smiled. She was sure that whatever mistakes there might have been, he would give no further occasion against himself, and then every one would see that all had been mere misunderstanding, and they should be happy again.

Such trust humbled him, and he was ready to make all promises and resolutions; but he could not obtain the renewal of the engagement, nor permission to correspond. Only there was wrung out of Parson Frank a promise that if he could come in two years with a perfectly unstained, unblotted character, the betrothal might be renewed.

We were very thankful for the hope and motive, and Griff had no doubts of himself.

'One can't look at the pretty creature and think of disappointing her,' he said. 'She is altered, you know, Ted; they've bullied her till she is more ethereal than ever, but it only makes her lovelier. I believe if she saw me kill some one on the spot she would think it all my generosity; or, if she could not, she would take and die. Oh no! I'll not fail her. No, I won't; not if I have to spend seven years after the model of old Bill, whose liveliest pastime is a good long sermon, when it is not a ghost.'