Chapter XXXI--Facilis Descensus
 
'The slippery verge her feet beguiled;
   She tumbled headlong in.'

GRAY.

One of Griffith's briefest notes in his largest hand announced that he had accepted various invitations to country houses, for cricket matches, archery meetings, and the like; nor did he even make it clear where his address would be, except that he would be with a friend in Scotland when grouse-shooting began.

Clarence, however, came home for a brief holiday. He was startled at the first sight of Ellen. He said she was indeed lovelier than ever, with an added sweetness in her clear eyes and the wild rose flush in her delicate cheek; but that she looked as if she was being refined away to nothing, and was more than ever like the vision with the lamp.

Of course the Fordyces had not been going into society, though Ellen and Emily were as much together as before, helping one another in practising their school children in singing, and sharing in one another's studies and pursuits. There had been in the spring a change at Wattlesea; the old incumbent died, and the new one was well reported of as a very earnest hardworking man. He seemed to be provided with a large family, and there was no driving into Wattlesea without seeing members of it scattered about the place.

The Fordyces being anxious to show them attention without a regular dinner-party, decided on inviting all the family to keep Anne's ninth birthday, and Emily and Martyn were of course to come and assist at the entertainment.

It was on the morning of the day fixed that a letter came to me whose contents seemed to burn themselves into my brain. Martyn called across the breakfast-table, 'Look at Edward! Has any one sent you a young basilisk?'

'I wish it was,' I gasped out.

'Don't look so,' entreated Emily. 'Tell us! Is it Griff?'

'Not ill-hurt?' cried my mother. 'Oh no, no. Worse!' and then somehow I articulated that he was married; and Clarence exclaimed, 'Not the Peacock!' and at my gesture my father broke out. 'He has done for himself, the unhappy boy. A disgraceful Scotch marriage. Eh?'

'It was his sense of honour,' I managed to utter.

'Sense of fiddlestick!' said my poor father. 'Don't stop to excuse him. We've had enough of that! Let us hear.'

I cannot give a copy of the letter. It was so painful that it was destroyed; for there was a tone of bravado betraying his uneasiness, but altogether unbecoming. All that it disclosed was, that some one staying in the same house had paid insulting attentions to Lady Peacock; she had thrown herself on our brother's protection, and after interfering on her behalf, he had found that there was no means of sheltering her but by making her his wife. This had been effected by the assistance of the lady of the house where they had been staying; and Griffith had written to me two days later from Edinburgh, declaring that Selina had only to be known to be loved, and to overcome all prejudices.

'Prejudices,' said my father bitterly. 'Prejudices in favour of truth and honour.'

And my mother uttered the worst reproach of all, when in my agitation, I slipped and almost fell in rising--'Oh, my poor Edward! that I should have lived to think yours the least misfortune that has befallen my sons!'

'Nay, mother,' said Clarence, putting Martyn toward her, 'here is one to make up for us all.'

'Clarence,' said my father, 'your mother did not mean anything but that you and Edward are the comfort of our lives. I wish there were a chance of Griffith redeeming the past as you have done; but I see no hope of that. A man is never ruined till he is married.'

At that moment there was a step in the hall, a knock at the door, and there stood Mr. Frank Fordyce. He looked at us and said, 'It is true then.'

'To our shame and sorrow it is,' said my father. 'Fordyce, how can we look you in the face?'

'As my dear good friend, and my father's,' said the kind man, shaking him by the hand heartily. 'Do you think we could blame you for this youth's conduct? Stay'--for we young ones were about to leave the room. 'My poor girl knows nothing yet. Her mother luckily got the letter in her bedroom. We can't put off the Reynoldses, you know, so I came to ask the young people to come up as if nothing had happened, and then Ellen need know nothing till the day is over.'

'If I can,' said Emily.

'You can be capable of self-command, I hope,' said my mother severely, 'or you do not deserve to be called a friend.'

Such speeches might not be pleasant, but they were bracing, and we all withdrew to leave the elders to talk it over together, when, as I believe, kind Parson Frank was chiefly concerned to argue my parents out of their shame and humiliation.

Clarence told us what he knew or guessed; and we afterwards understood the matter to have come about chiefly through poor Griff's weakness of character, and love of amusement and flattery. The boyish flirtation with Selina Clarkson had never entirely died away, though it had been nothing more than the elder woman's bantering patronage and easy acceptance of the youth's equally gay, jesting admiration. It had, however, involved some raillery on his attachment to the little Methodistical country girl, and this gradually grew into jealousy of her--especially as Griff became more of a man, and a brilliant member of society. The detention from the funeral had been a real victory on the widow's part, and the few times when Clarence had seen them together he had been dismayed at the cavaliere serviente terms on which Griff seemed to stand; but his words of warning were laughed down. The rest was easy to gather. He had gone about on the round of visits almost as an appendage to Lady Peacock, till they came to a free and easy house, where her coquetry and love of admiration brought on one of those disputes which rendered his championship needful; and such defence could only have one conclusion, especially in Scotland, where hasty private marriages were still legal. What an exchange! Only had Griff ever comprehended the worth of his treasure?

Emily went as late as she could, that there might be the less chance of a tete-a-tete, in which she might be surprised into a betrayal of her secret: indeed she only started at last when Martyn's impatience had become intolerable.

What was our amazement when, much earlier than we expected, we saw Mr. Fordyce driving up in his phaeton, and heard the story he had to tell.

Emily's delay had succeeded in bringing her only just in time for the luncheon that was to be the children's dinner. There was a keen-looking, active, sallow clergyman, grizzled, and with an air of having seen much service; a pale, worn wife, with a gentle, sensible face; and a bewildering flock of boys and girls, all apparently under the command of a very brisk, effective-looking elder sister of fourteen or fifteen, who seemed to be the readiest authority, and to decide what and how much each might partake of, among delicacies, evidently rare novelties.

The day was late in August. The summer had broken; there had been rain, and, though fine, the temperature was fitter for active sports than anything else. Croquet was not yet invented, and, besides, most of the party were of the age for regular games at play. Ellen and Emily did their part in starting these--finding, however, that the Reynolds boys were rather rough, in spite of the objurgations of their sister, who evidently thought herself quite beyond the age for romps. The sports led them to the great home-field on the opposite slope of the ridge from our own. The new farm-buildings were on the level ground at the bottom to the right, where the declivity was much more gradual than to the left, which was very steep, and ended in furze bushes and low copsewood. It was voted a splendid place for hide-and-seek, and the game was soon in such full career that Ellen, who had had quite running enough, could fall out of it, and with her, the other two elder girls. Emily felt Fanny Reynolds' presence a sort of protection, 'little guessing what she was up to,' to use her own expression. Perhaps the girl had not earlier made out who Emily was, or she had been too much absorbed in her cares; but, as the three sat resting on a stump overlooking the hill, she was prompted by the singular inopportuneness of precocious fourteen to observe, 'I ought to have congratulated you, Miss Winslow.'

Emily gabbled out, 'Thank you, never mind,' hoping thus to put a stop to whatever might be coming; but there was no such good fortune. 'We saw it in the paper. It is your brother, isn't it?'

'What?' asked unsuspicious Ellen, thinking, no doubt, of some fresh glory to Griffith.

And before Emily could utter a word, if there were any she could have uttered, out it came. 'The marriage--John Griffith Winslow, Esquire, eldest son of John Edward Winslow of Chantry House, to Selina, relict of Sir Henry Peacock and daughter of George Clarkson, Esquire, Q.C. I didn't think it could be you at first, because you would have been at the wedding.'

Emily had not even time to meet Ellen's eyes before they were startled by a shriek that was not the merry 'whoop' and 'I spy' of the game, and, springing up, the girls saw little Anne Fordyce rushing headlong down the very steepest part of the slope, just where it ended in an extremely muddy pool, the watering-place of the cattle. The child was totally unable to stop herself, and so was Martyn, who was dashing after her. Not a word was said, though, perhaps, there was a shriek or two, but the elder sisters flew with one accord towards the pond. They also were some way above it, but at some distance off, so that the descent was not so perpendicular, and they could guard against over-running themselves. Ellen, perhaps from knowing the ground better, was far before the other two; but already poor little Anne had gone straight down, and fallen flat on her face in the water, Martyn after her, perhaps with a little more free will, for, though he too fell, he was already struggling to lift Anne up, and had her head above water, when Ellen arrived and dashed in to assist.

The pond began by being shallow, but the bottom sloped down into a deep hollow, and was besides covered several feet deep with heavy cattle-trodden mire and weeds, in which it was almost impossible to gain a footing, or to move. By the time Emily and Miss Reynolds had come to the brink, Ellen and Martyn were standing up in the water, leaning against one another, and holding poor little Anne's head up- -all they could do. Ellen called out, 'Don't! don't come in! Call some one! The farm! We are sinking in! You can't help! Call--'

The danger was really terrible of their sinking in the mud and weeds, and being sucked into the deep part of the pool, and they were too far in to be reached from the bank. Emily perceived this, and ran as she had never run before, happily meeting on the way with the gentlemen, who had been inspecting the new model farm-buildings, and had already taken alarm from the screams.

They found the three still with their heads above water, but no more, for every struggle to get up the slope only plunged them deeper in the horrible mud. Moreover, Fanny Reynolds was up to her ankles in the mud, holding by one of her brothers, but unable to reach Martyn. It seems she had had some idea of forming a chain of hands to pull the others out.

Even now the rescue was not too easy. Mr. Fordyce hurried in, and took Anne in his arms; but, even with his height and strength, he found his feet slipping away under him, and could only hand the little insensible girl to Mr. Reynolds, bidding him carry her at once to the house, while he lifted Martyn up only just in time, and Ellen clung to him. Thus weighted, he could not get out, till the bailiff and another man had brought some faggots and a gate that were happily near at hand, and helped him to drag the two out, perfectly exhausted, and Martyn hardly conscious. They both were carried to the Rectory,--Ellen by her father, Martyn by the foreman,--and they were met at the door by the tidings that little Anne was coming to herself.

Indeed, by the time Mr. Fordyce had put on dry clothes, all three were safe in warm beds, and quite themselves again, so that he trusted that no mischief was done; though he decided upon fetching my mother to satisfy herself about Martyn. However, a ducking was not much to a healthy fellow like Martyn, and my mother found him quite fit to dress himself in the clothes she brought, and to return home with her. Both the girls were asleep, but Ellen had had a shivering fit, and her mother was with her, and was anxious. Emily told her mother of Fanny Reynolds' unfortunate speech, and it was thought right to mention it. Mrs. Fordyce listened kindly, kissed Emily, and told her not to be distressed, for possibly it might turn out to have been the best thing for Ellen to have learnt the fact at such a moment; and, at any rate, it had spared her parents some doubt and difficulty as to the communication.