Chapter 38

Ernest was thus in disgrace from the beginning of the holidays, but an incident soon occurred which led him into delinquencies compared with which all his previous sins were venial.

Among the servants at the Rectory was a remarkably pretty girl named Ellen. She came from Devonshire, and was the daughter of a fisherman who had been drowned when she was a child. Her mother set up a small shop in the village where her husband had lived, and just managed to make a living. Ellen remained with her till she was fourteen, when she first went out to service. Four years later, when she was about eighteen, but so well grown that she might have passed for twenty, she had been strongly recommended to Christina, who was then in want of a housemaid, and had now been at Battersby about twelve months.

As I have said the girl was remarkably pretty; she looked the perfection of health and good temper, indeed there was a serene expression upon her face which captivated almost all who saw her; she looked as if matters had always gone well with her and were always going to do so, and as if no conceivable combination of circumstances could put her for long together out of temper either with herself or with anyone else. Her complexion was clear, but high; her eyes were grey and beautifully shaped; her lips were full and restful, with something of an Egyptian Sphinx-like character about them. When I learned that she came from Devonshire I fancied I saw a strain of far away Egyptian blood in her, for I had heard, though I know not what foundation there was for the story, that the Egyptians made settlements on the coast of Devonshire and Cornwall long before the Romans conquered Britain. Her hair was a rich brown, and her figure—of about the middle height—perfect, but erring if at all on the side of robustness. Altogether she was one of those girls about whom one is inclined to wonder how they can remain unmarried a week or a day longer.

Her face (as indeed faces generally are, though I grant they lie sometimes) was a fair index to her disposition. She was good nature itself, and everyone in the house, not excluding I believe even Theobald himself after a fashion, was fond of her. As for Christina she took the very warmest interest in her, and used to have her into the dining-room twice a week, and prepare her for confirmation (for by some accident she had never been confirmed) by explaining to her the geography of Palestine and the routes taken by St Paul on his various journeys in Asia Minor.

When Bishop Treadwell did actually come down to Battersby and hold a confirmation there (Christina had her wish, he slept at Battersby, and she had a grand dinner party for him, and called him "My lord" several times), he was so much struck with her pretty face and modest demeanour when he laid his hands upon her that he asked Christina about her. When she replied that Ellen was one of her own servants, the bishop seemed, so she thought or chose to think, quite pleased that so pretty a girl should have found so exceptionally good a situation.

Ernest used to get up early during the holidays so that he might play the piano before breakfast without disturbing his papa and mamma—or rather, perhaps, without being disturbed by them. Ellen would generally be there sweeping the drawing-room floor and dusting while he was playing, and the boy, who was ready to make friends with most people, soon became very fond of her. He was not as a general rule sensitive to the charms of the fair sex, indeed he had hardly been thrown in with any women except his Aunts Allaby, and his Aunt Alethea, his mother, his sister Charlotte and Mrs Jay; sometimes also he had had to take off his hat to the Miss Skinners, and had felt as if he should sink into the earth on doing so, but his shyness had worn off with Ellen, and the pair had become fast friends.

Perhaps it was well that Ernest was not at home for very long together, but as yet his affection though hearty was quite Platonic. He was not only innocent, but deplorably—I might even say guiltily—innocent. His preference was based upon the fact that Ellen never scolded him, but was always smiling and good tempered; besides she used to like to hear him play, and this gave him additional zest in playing. The morning access to the piano was indeed the one distinct advantage which the holidays had in Ernest's eyes, for at school he could not get at a piano except quasi- surreptitiously at the shop of Mr Pearsall, the music-seller.

On returning this midsummer he was shocked to find his favourite looking pale and ill. All her good spirits had left her, the roses had fled from her cheek, and she seemed on the point of going into a decline. She said she was unhappy about her mother, whose health was failing, and was afraid she was herself not long for this world. Christina, of course, noticed the change. "I have often remarked," she said, "that those very fresh-coloured, healthy-looking girls are the first to break up. I have given her calomel and James's powders repeatedly, and though she does not like it, I think I must show her to Dr Martin when he next comes here."

"Very well, my dear," said Theobald, and so next time Dr Martin came Ellen was sent for. Dr Martin soon discovered what would probably have been apparent to Christina herself if she had been able to conceive of such an ailment in connection with a servant who lived under the same roof as Theobald and herself—the purity of whose married life should have preserved all unmarried people who came near them from any taint of mischief.

When it was discovered that in three or four months more Ellen would become a mother, Christina's natural good nature would have prompted her to deal as leniently with the case as she could, if she had not been panic-stricken lest any mercy on her and Theobald's part should be construed into toleration, however partial, of so great a sin; hereon she dashed off into the conviction that the only thing to do was to pay Ellen her wages, and pack her off on the instant bag and baggage out of the house which purity had more especially and particularly singled out for its abiding city. When she thought of the fearful contamination which Ellen's continued presence even for a week would occasion, she could not hesitate.

Then came the question—horrid thought!—as to who was the partner of Ellen's guilt? Was it, could it be, her own son, her darling Ernest? Ernest was getting a big boy now. She could excuse any young woman for taking a fancy to him; as for himself, why she was sure he was behind no young man of his age in appreciation of the charms of a nice-looking young woman. So long as he was innocent she did not mind this, but oh, if he were guilty!

She could not bear to think of it, and yet it would be mere cowardice not to look such a matter in the face—her hope was in the Lord, and she was ready to bear cheerfully and make the best of any suffering He might think fit to lay upon her. That the baby must be either a boy or girl—this much, at any rate, was clear. No less clear was it that the child, if a boy, would resemble Theobald, and if a girl, herself. Resemblance, whether of body or mind, generally leaped over a generation. The guilt of the parents must not be shared by the innocent offspring of shame—oh! no—and such a child as this would be . . . She was off in one of her reveries at once.

The child was in the act of being consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury when Theobald came in from a visit in the parish, and was told of the shocking discovery.

Christina said nothing about Ernest, and I believe was more than half angry when the blame was laid upon other shoulders. She was easily consoled, however, and fell back on the double reflection, firstly, that her son was pure, and secondly, that she was quite sure he would not have been so had it not been for his religious convictions which had held him back—as, of course, it was only to be expected they would.

Theobald agreed that no time must be lost in paying Ellen her wages and packing her off. So this was done, and less than two hours after Dr Martin had entered the house Ellen was sitting beside John the coachman, with her face muffled up so that it could not be seen, weeping bitterly as she was being driven to the station.