Chapter XXXV--Griff's Bird
 
'Shall such mean little creatures pretend to the fashion?
Cousin Turkey Cock, well may you be in a passion.'

The Peacock at Home.

It was not till the second Christmas after dear Ellen Fordyce's death that my eldest brother brought his wife and child to Chantry House, after an urgent letter to Lady Peacock from my mother, who yearned for a sight of Griffith's boy.

I do not wish to dwell on that visit. Selina, or Griff's bird, as Martyn chose to term her, was certainly handsome and stylish; but her complexion had lost freshness and delicacy, and the ladies said her colour was rouge, and her fine figure due to other female mysteries. She meant to be very gracious, and patronised everybody, especially Emily, who, she said, would be quite striking if not sacrificed by her dress, and whom she much wished to take to London, engaging to provide her with a husband before the season was over, not for a moment believing my mother's assurance that it would be a trial to us all whenever we had to resign our Emily. Nay, she tried to condole with the poor moped family slave, and was received with such hot indignation as made her laugh, for, to do her justice, she was good-natured and easy-tempered. However, I saw less of her than did the others, for I believe she thought the sight of me made her ill. Griff, poor old fellow, was heartily glad to be with us again, but quite under her dominion. He had lost his glow of youth and grace of figure, his complexion had reddened, and no one would have guessed him only a year older than Clarence, whose shoulders did indeed reveal something of the desk, but whose features, though pale, were still fair and youthful. The boy was another Clarence, not so much in compliment to his godfather as because it was the most elegant name in the family, and favoured an interesting belief, current among his mother's friends, that the king had actually stood sponsor to the uncle. Poor little man, his grandmother shut herself into the bookroom and cried, after her first sight of him. He was a wretched, pinched morsel of humanity, though mamma and Emily detected wonderful resemblances; I never saw them, but then he inherited his mother's repulsion towards me, and roared doubly at the sight of me. My mother held that he was the victim of Selina's dissipations and mismanagement of herself and him, and gave many matronly groans at his treatment by the smart, flighty nurse, who waged one continual warfare with the household.

Accustomed to absolute supremacy in domestic matters, it was very hard for my mother to have her counsels and experience set at naught, and, if she appealed to Griff, to find her notions treated with the polite deference he might have shown to a cottage dame.

A course of dinner-parties could not hinder her ladyship from finding Chantry House insufferably dull, 'always like Sunday;' and, when she found that we were given to Saints' Day services, her pity and astonishment knew no bounds. 'It was all very well for a poor object like Edward,' she held, 'but as to Mr. Winslow and Clarence, did they go for the sake of example? Though, to be sure, Clarence might be a Papist any day.'

Popery, instead of Methodism, was just beginning to be the bugbear set up for those whom the world held to be ultra-religious, and my mother was so far disturbed at our interest in what was termed Oxford theology that the warning would have alarmed her if it had come from any other quarter. However, Lady Peacock was rather fond of Clarence, and entertained him with schemes for improving Chantry House when it should have descended to Griffith. The mullion rooms were her special aversion, and were all to be swept away, together with the vaultings and the ruin--'enough to give one the blues, if there were nothing else,' she averred.

We really felt it to the credit of our country that Sir George Eastwood sent an invitation to an early dance to please his young daughters; and for this our visitors prolonged their stay. My mother made Clarence go, that she might have some one to take care of her and Emily, since Griff was sure to be absorbed by his lady. Emily had not been to a ball since those gay days in London with Ellen. She shrank back from the contrast, and would have begged off; but she was told that she must submit; and though she said she felt immeasurably older than at that happy time, I believe she was not above being pleased with the pale pink satin dress and wreath of white jessamine, which my father presented to her, and in which, according to Martyn, she beat 'Griff's bird all to shivers.'

Clarence had grown much less bashful and embarrassed since the Tooke affair had given him a kind of position and a sense of not being a general disgrace. He really was younger in some ways at five-and- twenty than at eighteen; he enjoyed dancing, and especially enjoyed the compliments upon our sister, whom in our usual fashion we viewed as the belle of the ball. He was standing by my fire, telling me the various humours of the night, when a succession of shrieks ran through the house. He dashed away to see what was the matter, and returned, in a few seconds, saying that Selina had seen some one in the garden, and neither she nor mamma would be satisfied without examination--'though, of course, I know what it must be,' he added, as he drew on his coat.

'Bill, are you coming?' said Griff at the door. 'You needn't, if you don't like it. I bet it is your old friend.'

'I'm coming! I'm coming! I'm sure it is,' shouted Martyn from behind, with the inconsistent addition, 'I've got my gun.'

'Enough to dispose of any amount of robbers or phantoms either,' observed Griff as they went forth by the back door, reinforced by Amos Bell with a lantern in one hand and a poker in the other.

My father was fortunately still asleep, and my mother came down to see whether I was frightened.

She said she had no patience with Selina, and had left her to Emily and her maid; but, before many words had been spoken, they all came creeping down after her, feeling safety in numbers, or perhaps in her entire fearlessness. The report of a gun gave us all a shock, and elicited another scream or two. My mother, hoping that no one was hurt, hastened into the hall, but only to meet Griff, hurrying in laughing to reassure us with the tidings that it was only Martyn, who had shot the old sun-dial by way of a robber; and he was presently followed by the others, Martyn rather crestfallen, but arguing with all his might that the sun-dial was exactly like a man; and my mother hurried every one off upstairs without further discussion.

Clarence was rather white, and when Martyn demanded, 'Do you really think it was the ghost? Fancy her selection of the bird!' he gravely answered, 'Martyn, boy, if it were, it is not a thing to speak of in that tone. You had better go to bed.'

Martyn went off, somewhat awed. Clarence was cold and shivering, and stood warming himself. He was going to wind up his watch, but his hand shook, and I did it for him, noting the hour--twenty minutes past one.

It appeared that Selina, on going upstairs, recollected that she had left her purse in Griff's sitting-room before going to dress, and had gone in quest of it. She heard strange shouts and screams outside, and, going to one of the old windows, where the shutters were less unmanageable than elsewhere, she beheld a woman rushing towards the house pursued by at least a couple of men. Filled with terror she had called out, and nearly fainted in Griff's arms.

'It agrees with all we have heard before,' said Clarence, 'the very day and hour!'

'As Martyn said, the person is strange.'

'Villagers, less concerned, have seen the like,' he said; 'and, indeed, all unconsciously poor Selina has cut away the hope of redress,' he sighed. 'Poor, restless spirit! would that I could do anything for her.'

'Let me ask, do you ever see her now?'

'N-no, I suppose not; but whenever I am anxious or worried, the trouble takes her form in my dreams.'

Lady Peacock had soon extracted the ghost story from her husband, and, though she professed to be above the vulgar folly of belief in it, her nerves were so upset, she said, that nothing would have induced her to sleep another night in the house. The rational theory on this occasion was that one of the maids must have stolen out to join in the Christmas entertainment at the Winslow Arms, and been pursued home by some tipsy revellers; but this explanation was not productive of goodwill between the mother and daughter-in-law, since mamma had from the first so entirely suspected Selina's smart nurse as actually to have gone straight to the nursery on the plea of seeing whether the baby had been frightened. The woman was found asleep--apparently so--said my mother, but all her clothes were in an untidy heap on the floor, which to my mother was proof conclusive that she had slipped into the house in the confusion, and settled herself there. Had not my mother with her own eyes watched from the window her flirtations with the gardener, and was more evidence requisite to convict her? Mamma entertained the hope that her proposal would be adopted of herself taking charge of her grandson, and fattening his poor little cheeks on our cows' milk, while the rest of the party continued their round of visits.

Lady Peacock, however, treated it as a personal imputation that her nurse should be accused instead of any servant of Mrs. Winslow's own, though, as Griff observed, not only character, but years and features might alike acquit them of any such doings; but even he could not laugh long, for it was no small vexation to him that such offence should have arisen between his mother and wife. Of course there was no open quarrel--my mother had far too much dignity to allow it to come to that--but each said in private bitter things of the other, and my lady's manner of declining to leave her baby at Chantry House was almost offensive.

Poor Griffith, who had been growing more like himself every day, tried in vain to smooth matters, and would have been very glad to leave his child to my mother's management, though, of course, he acquitted the nurse of the midnight adventure. He privately owned to us that he had no opinion of the woman, but he defended her to my mother, in whose eyes this was tantamount to accusing her own respectable maids, since it was incredible that any rational person could accept the phantom theory.

Gladly would he have been on better terms, for he had had to confess that his wife's fortune had turned out to be much less than common report had stated, or than her style of living justified, and that his marriage had involved him in a sea of difficulties, so that he had to beg for a larger allowance, and for assistance in paying off debts.

The surrender of the London house and of some of the chief expenses were made conditions of such favours, and Griffith had assented gratefully when alone with his father; but after an interview with his wife, demonstrations were made that it was highly economical to have a house in town, and horses, carriages, and servants and that any change would be highly derogatory to the heir of Earlscombe and the sacred wishes of the late Sir Henry Peacock.

In fact, it was impressed on us that we were mere homely, countrified beings, who could not presume to dictate to her ladyship, but who had ill requited her condescension in deigning to beam upon us.