Chapter XXXIII--The River's Bank
 
'And my friend rose up in the shadows,
   And turned to me,
"Be of good cheer," I said faintly,
   For He called thee.'

B. M.

Mr. Fordyce waited at Hillside till after Sunday, and then went to Bath to hear the verdict of the physician. He returned as much depressed as it was in his sanguine nature to be, for great delicacy of the lungs had been detected; and to prevent the recent chill from leaving permanent injury, Ellen must have a winter abroad, and warm sea or mountain air at once. Whether the disease were constitutional and would have come on at all events no one could tell.

Consumption was much less understood half a century ago; codliver oil was unknown; and stethoscopes were new inventions, only used by the more advanced of the faculty. The only escape poor Parson Frank had from accepting the doom was in disbelieving that a thing like a trumpet could really reveal the condition of the chest. Moreover, Mrs. Fordyce had had a brother who had, under the famous cowhouse cure, recovered enough to return home, and be killed by the upsetting of a stage coach.

Mrs. Fordyce took her daughter to Lyme, and waited there till her husband had found a curate and made all arrangements. It must have been very inconvenient not to come home; but, no doubt, she wanted to prevent any more partings. Then they went abroad, travelling slowly, and seeing all the sights that came in their way, to distract Ellen's thoughts. She was not allowed to hear what ailed her; but believed her languor and want of interest in everything to be the effect of the blow she had received, struggling to exert herself, and to enter gratefully into the enjoyments provided for her. She was not prevented from writing to Emily; indeed, no one liked to hinder anything she wished, but they were guide-book letters, describing all she saw as a kind of duty, but scarcely concealing the trouble it was to look. Such sentences would slip out as 'This is a nice quiet place, and I am happy to say there is nothing that one ought to see.' Or, 'I sat in the cathedral at Lucerne while the others were going round. The organ was playing, and it was such rest!' Or, again, after a day on the Lago di Como, 'It was glorious, and if you and Edward were here, perhaps the beauty would penetrate my sluggish soul!'

Ellen's sluggish soul!--when we remembered her keen ecstasy at the Valley of Rocks.

Those letters were our chief interest in an autumn which seemed dreary to us, in spite of friendly visitors; for had not our family hope and joy been extinguished? There was no direct communication with Griffith after his unpleasant reply to my father's letter; but Clarence saw the newly married pair on their return to Lady Peacock's house in London, and reported that they were very kind and friendly to him, and gave him more invitations than he could accept. Being cross-examined when he came home for Christmas, he declared his conviction that Lady Peacock had married Griff entirely from affection, and that he had been--well--flattered into it. They seemed very fond of each other now, and were launching out into all sorts of gaieties; but though he did not tell my father, he confided to me that he feared that Griffith had been disappointed in the amount of fortune at his wife's disposal.

It was at that Christmas time, one night, having found an intrusive cat upon my bed, Clarence carried her out at the back door close to his room, and came back in haste and rather pale. 'It is quite true about the lady and the light being seen out of doors,' he said in an awe-stricken voice, 'I have just seen her flit from the mullion room to the ruin.'

We only noted the fact in that ghost-diary of ours--we told nobody, and looked no more. We already believed that these appearances on the lawn must be the cause that every window, up to the attics on the garden side of the house, were so heavily shuttered and barred that there was no opening them without noise. Indeed, those on the ground floor had in addition bells attached to them. No doubt the former inhabitants had done their best to prevent any one from seeing or inquiring into what was unacknowledged and unaccountable. It might be only a coincidence, but we could not help remarking that we had seen and heard nothing of her during the engagement which might have united the two families; though, of course, it would be ridiculous to suppose her cognisant of it, like the White Lady of Avenel, dancing for joy at Mary's marriage with Halbert Glendinning.

The Fordyces had settled at Florence, where they suffered a great deal more from cold than they would have done at Hillside; and there was such a cessation of Ellen's letters that Emily feared that Mrs. Fordyce had attained her wish and separated the friends effectually. However, Frank Fordyce beguiled his enforced leisure with long letters to my father on home business, Austrian misgovernment, and the Italian Church and people, full of shrewd observations and new lights; and one of these ended thus, 'My poor lassie has been in bed for ten days with a severe cold. She begs me to say that she has begun a letter to Emily, and hopes soon to finish it. We had thought her gaining ground, but she is sadly pulled down. Fiat voluntas.'

The letter, which had been begun, never came; but, after three long weeks, there was one from the dear patient herself, mentioning her illness, and declaring that it was so comfortable to be allowed to be tired, and to go nowhere and see nothing except the fragment of beautiful blue sky, and the corner of a campanile, and the flowers Anne brought in daily.

As soon as she could be moved, they took her to Genoa, where she revived enough to believe that she should be well if she were at home again, and to win from her parents a promise to take her to Hillside as soon as the spring winds were over. So anxious was she that, as soon as there was any safety in travelling, the party began moving northwards, going by sea to Marseilles to avoid the Corniche, so early in the year. There were many fluctuations, and it was only her earnest yearning for home and strong resolution that could have made her parents persevere; but at last they were at Hillside, just after Whitsuntide, in the last week of May.

Frank Fordyce walked over to see us on the very evening after their arrival. He was much altered, his kindly handsome face looked almost as if he had gone through an illness; and, indeed, apart from all his anxiety and sorrow, he had pined in foreign parts for his human flock, as well as his bullocks and his turnips. He had also read, thought, and observed a great deal, and had left his long boyhood behind him, during a space for study and meditation such as he had never had before.

He was quite hopeless of his daughter's recovery, and made no secret of it. In passing through London the best advice had been taken, but only to obtain the verdict that the case was beyond all skill, and that it was only a matter of weeks, when all that could be done was to give as much gratification as possible. The one thing that Ellen did care about was to be at home--to have Emily with her, and once more see her school children, her church, and her garden. Tired as she was she had sprung up in the carriage at the first glimpse of Hillside spire, and had leant forward at the window, nodding and smiling her greetings to all the villagers.

She had been taken at once to her room and her bed, but her father had promised to beg Emily to come up by noon on the morrow. Then he sat talking of local matters, not able to help showing what infinite relief it was to him to be at home, and what music to his ears was the Somersetshire dialect and deep English voice 'after all those thin, shrill, screeching foreigners.'

Poor Emily! It was in mingled grief and gladness that she set off the next day, with the trepidation of one to whom sickness and decay were hitherto unknown. When she returned, it was in a different mood, unable to believe the doctors could be right, and in the delight of having her own bright, sweet Ellen back again, all herself. They had talked, but more of home and village than of foreign experiences; and though Ellen did not herself assist, she had much enjoyed watching the unpacking of the numerous gifts which had cost a perfect fortune at the Custom House. No one seemed forgotten--villagers, children, servants, friends. Some of these tokens are before me still. The Florentine mosaic paper-weight she brought me presses this very sheet; the antique lamp she gave my father is on the mantelpiece; Clarence's engraving of Raffaelle's St. Michael hangs opposite to me on the wall. Most precious in our eyes was the collection of plants, dried and labelled by herself, which she brought to Emily and me--poor mummies now, but redolent of undying affection. Her desire was to bestow all her keepsakes with her own hands, and in most cases she actually did so--a few daily, as her strength served her. The little figures in costume, coloured prints, Swiss carvings, French knicknacks, are preserved in many a Hillside cottage as treasured relics of 'our young lady.' Many years later, Martyn recognised a Hillside native in a back street in London by a little purple-blue picture of Vesuvius, and thereby reached the soft spot in a nearly dried-up heart.

So bright and playful was the dear girl over all her old familiar interests that we inexperienced beings believed not only that the wound to her affections was healed, but that she either did not know or did not realise the sentence that had been pronounced on her; but when this was repeated to her mother, it was met by a sad smile and the reply that we only saw her in her best hours. Still, through the summer, it was impossible to us to accept the truth; she looked so lovely, was so cheerful, and took such delight in all that was about her.

With the first cold, however, she seemed to shrivel up, and the bad nights extended into the days. Emily ascribed the change to the lack of going out into the air, and always found reasons for the increased languor and weakness; till at last there came a day when my poor little sister seemed as if the truth had broken upon her for the first time, when Ellen talked plainly to her of their parting, and had asked us both, 'her dear brother and sister,' to be with her at her Communion on All Saints' Day.

She had written a little letter to Clarence, begging his forgiveness for having cut him, and treated him with the scorn which, I believe, was the chief fault that weighed upon her conscience; and, hearing my father's voice in the house, she sent a message to beg him to come and see her in her mother's dressing-room--that very window where I had first heard her voice, refusing to come down to 'those Winslows.' She had sent for him to entreat him to forgive Griffith and recall the pair to Chantry House. 'Not now,' she said, 'but when I am gone.'

My father could deny her nothing, though he showed that the sight of her made the entreaty all the harder to him; and she pleaded, 'But you know this was not his doing. I never was strong, and it had begun before. Only think how sad it would have been for him.'

My father would have promised anything with that wasted hand on his, those fervent eyes gazing on him, and he told her he would have given his pardon long ago, if it had been sought, as it never had been.

'Ah! perhaps he did not dare!' she said. 'Won't you write when all this is over, and then you will be one family again as you used to be?'

He promised, though he scarcely knew where Griffith was. Clarence, however, did. He had answered Ellen's letter, and it had made him ask for a few days' leave of absence. So he came down on the Saturday, and was allowed a quarter of an hour beside Ellen's sofa in the Sunday evening twilight. He brought away the calm, rapt expression I had sometimes seen on his face at church, and Ellen made a special entreaty that he might share the morrow's feast.

There are some things that cannot be written of, and that was one. Still we had not thought the end near at hand, though on Tuesday morning a message was sent that Ellen was suffering and exhausted, and could not see Emily. It was a wild, stormy day, with fierce showers of sleet, and we clung to the hope that consideration for my sister had prompted the message. In the afternoon Clarence battled with a severe gale, made his way to Hillside, and heard that the weather affected the patient, and that there was much bodily distress. For one moment he saw her father, who said in broken accents that we could only pray that the spirit might be freed without much more suffering, 'though no doubt it is all right.'

Before daylight, before any one in the house was up, Clarence was mounting the hill in the gusts that had done their work on the trees and were subsiding with the darkness. And just as he was beginning the descent, as the sun tipped the Hillside steeple with light, he heard the knell, and counted the twenty-one for the years of our Ellen--for ours she will always be.

'Somehow,' he told me, 'I could not help taking off my hat and giving thanks for her, and then all the drops on all the boughs began sparkling, and there was a hush on all around as if she were passing among the angels, and a thrush broke out into a regular song of jubilee!'