Chapter XLIII--The Price
 
'With thee, my bark, I'll swiftly go
   Athwart the foaming brine.'

LORD BYRON.

Clarence would not tell me his purpose, he said, till he had considered it more fully; nor could we have much conversation on the way home, as my mother had arranged that we should bring an old friend of hers back with us to pay her a visit. So I had to sit inside and make myself agreeable to Mrs. Wrightson, while Clarence had plenty of leisure for meditation outside on the box seat. The good lady said much on the desirableness of marriage for Clarence, and the comfort it would be to my mother to see Emily settled.

We had heard much in town of railway shares; and the fortunes of Hudson, the railway king, were under discussion. I suspected Clarence of cogitating the using his capital in this manner; and hoped that when he saw his way, he might not think it dishonourable to come into further contact with Anne, and reveal his hopes. He allowed that he was considering of such investments, but would not say any more.

My mother and Emily had, in the meantime, been escorted home by Martyn. The first thing Clarence did was to bespeak Emily's company in a turn in the garden. What passed then I never knew nor guessed for years after. He consulted her whether, in case he were absent from England for five, seven, or ten years, she would be equal to the care of my mother and me. Martyn, when ordained, would have duties elsewhere, and could only be reckoned upon in emergencies. My mother, though vigorous and practical, had shown symptoms of gout, and if she were ill, I could hardly have done much for her; and on the other hand, though my health and powers of moving were at their best, and I was capable of the headwork of the estate, I was scarcely fit to be the representative member of the family. Moreover, these good creatures took into consideration that poor mamma and I would have been rather at a loss as each other's sole companions. I could sort shades for her Berlin work, and even solve problems of intricate knitting, and I could read to her in the evening; but I could not trot after her to her garden, poultry-yard, and cottages; nor could she enter into the pursuits that Emily had shared with me for so many years. Our connecting link, that dear sister, knew how sorely she would be missed, and she told Clarence that she felt fully competent to undertake, conjointly with us, all that would be incumbent on Chantry House, if he really wanted to be absent. For the rest, Clarence believed my mother would be the happier for being left regent over the estate; and his scheme broke upon me that very forenoon, when my mother and he were settling some executor's business together, and he told her that Mr. Castleford wished him to go out to Hong Kong, which was then newly ceded to the English, and where the firm wished to establish a house of business.

'You can't think of it,' she exclaimed, and the sound fell like a knell on my ears.

'I think I must,' was his answer. 'We shall be cut out if we do not get a footing there, and there is no one who can quite answer the purpose.'

'Not that young Frith--'

'Ten to one but he is on his way home. Besides, if not, he has his own work at Canton. We see our way to very considerable advantages, if--'

'Advantages!' she interrupted. 'I hate speculation. I should have thought you might be contented with your station; but that is the worst of merchants,--they never know when to stop. I suppose your ambition is to make this a great overgrown mansion, so that your father would not know it again.'

'Certainly not that, mamma,' said Clarence smiling; 'it is the last thing I should think of; but stopping would in this case mean going backward.'

'Why can't Mr. Castleford send one of his own sons?'

'Probably Walter may come out by and by, but he has not experience enough for this.'

Clarence had not in the least anticipated my mother's opposition, for he had come to underestimate her affection for and reliance on him. He had us all against him, for not only could we not bear to part with him; but the climate of Hong-Kong was in evil repute, and I had become persuaded that, with his knowledge of business, railway shares and scrip might be made to realise the amount needed, but he said, 'That is what I call speculation. The other matter is trade in which, with Heaven's blessing, I can hope to prosper.'

He explained that Mr. Castleford had received him on his coming to London with almost a request that he would undertake this expedition; but with fears whether, in his new position, he could or would do so, although his presence in China would be very important to the firm at this juncture; and there would be opportunities which would probably result in very considerable profits after a few years. If Clarence had been, as before, a mere younger brother, it would have been thought an excellent chance; and he would almost have felt bound by his obligations to Mr. Castleford to undertake the first starting of the enterprise, if it had not been for our recent loss, and the doubt whether he could he spared from home.

He made light of the dangers of climate. He had never suffered in that way in his naval days, and scarcely knew what serious illness meant. Indeed, he had outgrown much of that sensibility of nerve which had made him so curiously open to spiritual or semi-spiritual impressions.

'Any way,' he said, 'the thing is right to be done, provided my mother does not make an absolute point of my giving it up; and whether she does or not depends a good deal on how you others put it to her.'

'Right on Mr. Castleford's account?' I asked.

'That is one side of it. To refuse would put him in a serious difficulty; but I could perhaps come home sooner if it were not for this other matter. I told him so far as that it was an object with me to raise this sum in a few years, and he showed me how there is every likelihood of my being able to do so out there. So now I feel in your hands. If you all, and Edward chiefly, set to and persuade my mother that this undertaking is a dangerous business, and that I can only be led to it by inordinate love of riches--'

'No, no--'

'That's what she thinks,' pursued Clarence, 'and that I want to be a grander man than my father. That's at the bottom of her mind, I see. Well, if you deplore this, and let her think the place can't do without me, she will come out in her strength and make it my duty to stay at home.'

'It is very tempting,' said Emily.

'We all undertook to give up something.'

'We never thought it would come in this way!'

'We never do,' said Clarence.

'Tell me,' said Martyn, 'is this to content that ghost, poor thing? For it is very hard to believe in her, except in the mullion room in December.'

'Exactly so, Martyn,' he answered. 'Impressions fade, and the intellect fails to accept them. But I do not think that is my motive. We know that a wicked deed was done by our ancestor, and we hardly have the right to pray, "Remember not the sins of our forefathers," unless, now that we know the crime, we attempt what restitution in us lies.'

There was no resisting after this appeal, and after the first shock, my mother was ready to admit that as Clarence owed everything to Mr. Castleford, he could not well desert the firm, if it were really needful for its welfare that he should go out. We got her to look on Mr. Castleford as captain of the ship, and Clarence as first lieutenant; and when she was once convinced that he did not want to aggrandise the family, but to do his duty, she dropped her objections; and we soon saw that the occupations that his absence would impose on her would be a fresh interest in life.

Just as the decision was thus ratified, a packet from Canton arrived for Clarence from Bristol. It was the first reply of young Frith to the tidings of the bequest which had changed the poor clerk to a wealthy man, owning a large proportion of the shares of the prosperous house.

I asked if he were coming home, and Clarence briefly replied that he did not know,--'it depended--'

'Is he going to wed a fair Chinese with lily feet?' asked Martyn, to which the reply was an unusually discourteous 'Bosh,' as Clarence escaped with his letter. He was so reticent about it that I required a solemn assurance that poor Lawrence's head had not been turned by his fortune, and that there was nothing wrong with him. Indeed, there was great stupidity in never guessing the purport of that thick letter, nor that it contained one for Emily, where Lawrence Frith laid himself, and all that he had, at her feet, ascribing to her all the resolution with which he had kept from evil, and entreating permission to come home and endeavour to win her heart. We lived so constantly together that it is surprising that Clarence contrived to give the letter to Emily in private. She implored him to say nothing to us, and brought him the next day her letter of uncompromising refusal.

He asked whether it would have been the same if he had intended to remain at home.

'As if you were a woman, you conceited fellow,' was all the answer she vouchsafed him.

Nor could he ascertain, nor perhaps would she herself examine, on which side lay her heart of hearts. The proof had come whether she would abide by her pledge to him to accept the care of us in his absence. When he asked it, it had not occurred to him that it might be a renunciation of marriage. Now he perceived that so it had been, but she kept her counsel and so did he. We others never guessed at what was going on between those two.