"You know what I think, Alick, that you are the strictest judge that ever a merry girl had."
"I had rather you continued to think so, uncle; I should like to think so myself. Good night."
Alick was right, but whether or not Rachel entered into his motives, she made no objection to his going to the bazaar with his sister, being absolutely certain that he would not have done so if he could have helped it.
Nor was her day at all dreary; Mr. Clare was most kind and attentive to her, without being oppressive, and she knew she was useful to him. She was indeed so full of admiration and reverence for him, that once or twice it crossed her whether she were not belying another of her principles by lapsing into Curatocult, but the idea passed away with scorn at the notion of comparing Mr. Clare with the objects of such devotion. He belonged to that generation which gave its choicest in intellectual, as well as in religious gifts to the ministry, when a fresh tide of enthusiasm was impelling men forward to build up, instead of breaking down, before disappointment and suspicion had thinned the ranks, and hurled back many a recruit, or doctrinal carpings had taught men to dread a search into their own tenets. He was a highly cultivated, large-minded man, and the conversation between him and his nephew was a constant novelty to her, who had always yearned after depth and thought, and seldom met with them. Still here she was constantly feeling how shallow were her acquirements, how inaccurate her knowledge, how devoid of force and solidity her reasonings compared with what here seemed to be old, well-beaten ground. Nay, the very sparkle of fun and merriment surprised and puzzled her; and all the courtesy of the one gentleman, and the affection of the other, could not prevent her sometimes feeling herself the dullest and most ignorant person present. And yet the sense was never mortifying except when here and there a spark of the old conceit had lighted itself, and lured her into pretensions where she thought herself proficient. She was becoming more and more helpful to Mr. Clare, and his gratitude for her services made them most agreeable, nor did that atmosphere of peace and sincerity that reigned round the Rectory lose its charm. She was really happy all through the solitary Wednesday, and much more contented with the results than was Alick. "A sickening place," he said, "I am glad I went."
"How glad Bessie must have been to have you!"
"I believe she was. She has too much good taste for much of what went on there."
"I doubt," said Mr. Clare, laughing, "if you could have been an agreeable acquisition."
"I don't know. Bessie fools one into thinking oneself always doing her a favour. Oh, Rachel, I am thankful you have never taken to being agreeable."
CHAPTER XXV. THE HUNTSFORD CROQUET.
"Une femme egoiste, non seulement de coeur, mais d'esprit, ne pent pas sortir d'elle-meme. Le moi est indelible chez elle. Une veritable egoiste ne sait meme pas etre fausse." —MME. E. DE GIRARDIN.
"I am come to prepare you," said Lady Keith, putting her arm into her brother's, and leading him into the peacock path. "Mrs. Huntsford is on her way to call and make a dead set to get you all to a garden party."
"Then we are off to the Earlsworthy Woods."
"Nay, listen, Alick. I have let you alone and defended you for a whole month, but if you persist in shutting up you wife, people won't stand it."
"Which of us is the Mahometan?"
"You are pitied! But you see it was a strong thing our appearing without our several incumbrances, and though an old married woman like me may do as she pleases, yet for a bridegroom of not three weeks' standing to resort to bazaars solus argues some weighty cause."
"And argues rightly."
"Then you are content to be supposed to have an unproduceably eccentric melancholy bride?"
"Better they should think so than that she should be so. She has been victimized enough already to her mother's desire to save appearances."
"You do not half believe me, Alick, and this is really a very kind, thoughtful arrangement of Mrs. Huntsford's. She consulted me, saying there were such odd stories about you two that she was most anxious that Rachel should appear and confute them; and she thought that an out-of-door party like this would suit best, because it would be early, and Rachel could get away if she found it too much for her."
"After being walked out to satisfy a curious neighbourhood."
"Now Alick, do consider it. This sort of thing could remind her of nothing painful; Uncle George would enjoy it."
"And fall over the croquet traps."
"No; if you wanted to attend to him, I could take care of Rachel."
"I cannot tell, Bessie, I believe it is pure goodnature on Mrs. Huntsford's part, but if we go, it must be from Rachel's spontaneous movement. I will not press her on any account. I had rather the world said she was crazy at once than expose her to the risk of one of the dreadful nights that haunted us till we came here to perfect quiet."
"But she is well now. She looks better and nicer than I ever saw her. Really, Alick, now her face is softer, and her eyes more veiled, and her chin not cocked up, I am quite proud of her. Every one will be struck with her good looks."
"Flattery, Bessie," he said, not ill pleased. "Yes, she is much better, and more like herself; but I dread all this being overthrown. If she herself wishes to go, it may be a good beginning, but she must not be persuaded."
"Then I must not even tell her that she won't be required to croquet, and that I'll guard her from all civil speeches."
"No, for indeed, Bessie, on your own account and Lord Keith's, you should hardly spend a long afternoon from home."
"Here's the war in the enemy's quarters! As to fatigue, dawdling about Mrs. Huntsford's garden, is much the same as dawdling about my own, and makes me far more entertaining."
"I cannot help thinking, Bessie, that Lord Keith is more ill than you suppose. I am sure he is in constant pain."
"So I fear," said Bessie, gravely; "but what can be done? He will see no one but his old surgeon in Edinburgh."
"Then take him there."
"Take him? You must know what it is to be in the hands of a clever woman before you make such a proposal."
"You are a cleverer woman than my wife in bringing about what you really wish."
"Just consider, Alick, our own house is uninhabitable, and this one on our hands—my aunt coming to me in a month's time. You don't ask me to do what is reasonable."
"I cannot tell, Bessie. You can be the only judge of what is regard of the right kind for your husband's health or for yourself; and see, there is Mrs. Huntsford actually arrived, and talking to my uncle."
"One moment, Alick: I am not going to insult myself so far as to suppose that poor Charlie Carleton's being at home has anything to do with your desire to deport me, but I want you to know that he did not come home till after we were settled here."
"I do not wish to enter into details, Bessie," and he crossed the lawn towards the window where Mr. Clare and Rachel had just received Mrs. Huntsford, a goodnatured joyous-looking lady, a favourite with every one. Her invitation was dexterously given to meet a few friends at luncheon, and in the garden, where the guests would be free to come and go; there might perhaps be a little dancing later, she had secured some good music which would, she knew, attract Mr. Clare, and she hoped he would bring Captain and Mrs. Keith. She knew Mrs. Keith had not been well, but she promised her a quiet room to rest in, and she wanted to show her a view of the Devon coast done by a notable artist in water-colours. Rachel readily accepted—in fact, this quiet month had been so full of restoration that she had almost forgotten her morbid shrinking from visitors; and Bessie infused into her praise and congratulations a hint that a refusal would have been much against Alick's reputation, so that she resolved to keep up to the mark, even though he took care that she should know that she might yet retract.
"You did not wish me to refuse, Alick," said she, struck by his grave countenance, when she found him lying on the slope of the lawn shortly after, in deep thought.
"No, not at all," he replied; "it is likely to be a pleasant affair, and my uncle will be delighted to have us with him. No," he added, seeing that she still looked at him inquisitively, "it is the old story. My sister! Poor little thing! I always feel as though I wore more unkind and unjust to her than any one else, and yet we are never together without my feeling as if she was deceiving herself and me; and yet it is all so fair and well reasoned that one is always left in the wrong. I regretted this marriage extremely at first, and I am not the less disposed to regret it now."
"Indeed! Every one says how attentive she is to him, and how nicely they go on together."
"Pshaw, Rachel! that is just the way. A few words and pretty ways pass with her and all the world for attention, when she is wherever her fancy calls her, all for his good. It is just the attention she showed my uncle. And now it is her will and pleasure to queen it here among her old friends, and she will not open her eyes to see the poor old man's precarious state."
"Do you think him so very ill, Alick?"
"I was shocked when I saw him yesterday. As to sciatica, that is all nonsense; the blow in his side has done some serious damage, and if it is not well looked-to, who knows what will be the end of it! And then, a gay young widow with no control over her—I hate to think of it."
"Indeed," said Rachel, "she is so warm and bright, and really earnest in her kindness, that she will be sure to see her own way right at home. I don't think we can guess how obstinate Lord Keith may be in refusing to take advice."
"He cut me off pretty short," said Alick. "I am afraid he will see no one here; and, as Bessie says, the move to Scotland would not be easy just now. As I said, she leaves one in the wrong, and I don't like the future. But it is of no use to talk of it; so let us come and see if my uncle wants to go anywhere."
It was Alick's fate never to meet with sympathy in his feeling of his sister's double-mindedness. Whether it were that he was mistaken, or that she really had the gift of sincerity for the moment in whatever she was saying, the most candid and transparent people in the world—his uncle and his wife—never even succeeded in understanding his dissatisfaction with Bessie's doings, but always received them at her own valuation. Even while he had been looking forward, with hope deferred, to her residence with him as the greatest solace the world could yet afford him, Mr. Clare had always been convinced that her constant absence from his Rectory, except when his grand neighbours were at home, had been unavoidable, and had always credited the outward tokens of zealous devotion to his church and parish, and to all that was useful or good elsewhere. In effect there was a charm about her which no one but her brother ever resisted, and even he held out by an exertion that made him often appear ungracious.
However, for the present the uneasiness was set aside, in the daily avocations of the Rectory, where Alick was always a very different person from what he appeared in Lady Temple's drawing-room, constantly engaged as he was by unobtrusive watchfulness over his uncle, and active and alert in this service in a manner that was a curious contrast to his ordinary sauntering ways. As to Rachel, the whole state of existence was still a happy dream. She floated on from day to day in the tranquil activity of the Rectory, without daring to look back on the past or to think out her present frame of mind; it was only the languor and rest of recovery after suffering, and her husband was heedfully watching her, fearing the experiment of the croquet party, though on many accounts feeling the necessity of its being made.
Ermine's hint, that with Rachel it rested to prevent her unpopularity from injuring her husband, had not been thrown away, and she never manifested any shrinking from the party, and even took some interest in arraying herself for it.
"That is what I call well turned out," exclaimed Alick, when she came down.
"Describe her dress, if you please," said Mr. Clare, "I like to hear how my nieces look."
Alick guided his hand. "There, stroke it down, a long white feather in a shady hat trimmed with dark green, velvet; she is fresh and rosy, you know, sir, and looks well in green, and then, is it Grace's taste, Rachel? for it is the prettiest thing you have worn—a pale buff sort of silky thing, embroidered all over in the same colour," and he put a fold of the dress into his uncle's hand.
"Indian, surely," said Mr. Clare, feeling the pattern, "it is too intricate and graceful for the West."
"Yes," said Alick, "I remember now, Grace showed it to me. It was one that Lady Temple brought from India, and never had made up. Poor Grace could get no sympathy from Rachel about the wedding clothes, so she was obliged to come to me."
"And I thought you did not know one of my things from another," said Rachel. "Do you really mean that you care?"
"Depend upon it, he does, my dear," said Mr. Clare. "I have heard him severely critical on his cousins."
"He has been very good in not tormenting me," said Rachel, nestling nearer to him.
"I apprehended the consequences," said Alick, "and besides, you never mounted that black lace pall, or curtain, or whatever you call it, upon your head, after your first attempt at frightening me away with it."
"A cap set against, instead of at," said Mr. Clare, laughing; and therewith his old horse was heard clattering in the yard, and Alick proceeded to drive the well-used phaeton about three miles through Earlsworthy Park, to a pleasant-looking demesne in the village beyond. As they were turning in at the gate, up came Lady Keith with her two brisk little Shetlands. She was one mass of pretty, fresh, fluttering blue and white muslin, ribbon, and lace, and looked particularly well and brilliant.
"Well met," she said, "I called at the Rectory to take up Rachel, but you were flown before me."
"Yes, we went through the Park."
"I wish the Duke would come home. I can't go that way now till I have called. I have no end of things to say to you," she added, and her little lively ponies shot ahead of the old rectorial steed. However, she waited at the entrance. "Who do you think is come? Colin Keith made his appearance this morning. He has safely captured his Ouralian bear, though not without plenty of trouble, and he could not get him on to Avonmouth till he had been to some chemical institution about an invention. Colin thought him safe there, and rushed down by the train to see us. They go on to-morrow."
"What did he think of Lord Keith?" said Alick, in the more haste because he feared something being said to remind Rachel that this was the assize week at Avoncester.
"He has settled the matter about advice," said Bessie, seriously; "you cannot think what a relief it is. I mean, as soon as I get home, to write and ask Mr. Harvey to come and talk to me to-morrow, and see if the journey to Edinburgh is practicable. I almost thought of sending an apology, and driving over to consult him this afternoon, but I did not like to disappoint Mrs. Huntsford, and I thought Rachel would feel herself lost."
"Thank you," said Rachel, "but could we not go away early, and go round by Mr. Harvey's?"
"Unluckily I have sent the ponies home, and told the close carriage to come for me at nine. It was all settled, and I don't want to alarm Lord Keith by coming home too soon."
Alick, who had hitherto listened with interest, here gave his arm to Rachel, as if recollecting that it was time to make their entree. Bessie took her uncle's, and they were soon warmly welcomed by their kind hostess, who placed them so favourably at luncheon that Rachel was too much entertained to feel any recurrence of the old associations with "company." Afterwards, Bessie took her into the cool drawing-room, where were a few ladies, who preferred the sofa to croquet or archery, and Lady Keith accomplished a fraternization between Rachel and a plainly dressed lady, who knew all about the social science heroines of whom Rachel had longed to hear. After a time, however, a little girl darted in to call "Aunt Mary" to the aid of some playfellow, who had met with a mishap, and Rachel then perceived herself to have been deserted by her sister-in-law. She knew none of the other ladies, and they made no approaches to her; an access of self-consciousness came on, and feeling forlorn and uncomfortable, she wandered out to look for a friend.
It was not long before she saw Alick walking along the terrace above the croquet players, evidently in quest of her. "How is it with you?" he anxiously asked; "you know you can go home in a moment if you have had enough of this."
"No, I want nothing, now I have found you. Where is your uncle?"
"Fallen upon one of his oldest friends, who will take care of him, and well out of the way of the croquet traps. Where's my Lady? I thought you were with her."
"She disappeared while I was talking to that good Miss Penwell! You must be pleased now, Alick, you see she is really going to see about going to Scotland."
"I should be better pleased if she had not left that poor old man alone till nine o'clock."
"She says that when he has his man Saunders to read to him—"
"Don't tell me what she says; I have enough of that at first hand."
He broke off with a start. The terrace was prolonged into a walk beyond the screen of evergreens that shut in the main lawn, and, becoming a shrubbery path, led to a smooth glade, on whose turf preparations had been made for a second field of croquet, in case there should have been too many players for the principal arena. This, however, had not been wanted, and no one was visible except a lady and gentleman on a seat under a tree about half-way down on the opposite side of the glade. The lady was in blue and white; the gentleman would hardly have been recognised by Rachel but for the start and thrill of her husband's arm, and the flush of colour on his usually pale cheek, but, ere he could speak or move, the lady sprang up, and came hastening towards them diagonally across the grass. Rachel saw the danger, and made a warning outcry, "Bessie, the hoop!" but it was too late, she had tripped over it, and fell prone, and entirely unable to save herself. She was much nearer to them than to her late companion, and was struggling to disengage herself when Alick reached her, lifted her up, and placed her on her feet, supporting her as she clung fast to him, while he asked if she were hurt.
"No, no," she cried. "Don't let him come; don't let him call any one, don't," she reiterated, as Mr. Carleton hovered near, evidently much terrified, but not venturing to approach.
Alick helped her to another garden chair that stood near. She had been entangled in her dress, which had been much torn by her attempt to rise, and hung in a festoon, impeding her, and she moved with difficulty, breathing heavily when she was first seated.
"I don't know if I have not twisted myself a little," she said, in answer to their anxious questions, "but it will go off. Rachel, how scared you look!"
"Don't laugh," exclaimed Rachel, in dread of hysterics, and she plunged her hand into Alick's pocket for a scent-bottle, which he had put there by way of precaution for her, and, while applying it, said, in her full, sedate voice, keeping it as steady as she could, "Shall I drive you home? Alick can walk home with his uncle when he is ready."
"Home! Thank you, Rachel, pray do. Not that I am hurt," she added in her natural voice, "only these rags would tell tales, and there would be an intolerable fuss."
"Then I will bring the carriage round to the road there," said Alick. "I told Joe to be in readiness, and you need not go back to the house."
"Thank you. But, oh, send him away!" she added, with a gasping shudder. "Only don't let him tell any one. Tell him I desire he will not."
After a few words with Mr. Carleton, Alick strode off to the stables, and Rachel asked anxiously after the twist.
"I don't feel it; I don't believe in it. My dear, your strong mind is all humbug, or you would not look so frightened," and again she was on the verge of hysterical laughing; "it is only that I can't stand a chorus of old ladies in commotion. How happy Alick must be to have his prediction verified by some one tumbling over a hoop!" Just then, however, seeing Mr. Carleton still lingering near, she caught hold of Rachel with a little cry, "Don't let him come, dear Rachel; go to him, tell him I am well, but keep him away, and mind he tells no one!"
Rachel's cold, repellent manner was in full force, and she went towards the poor little man, whose girlish face was blanched with fright.
She told him that Lady Keith did not seem to be hurt, and only wished to be alone, and to go home without attracting notice. He stammered out something about quite understanding, and retreated, while Rachel returned to find Bessie sitting upright, anxiously watching, and she was at once drawn down to sit beside her on the bench, to listen to the excited whisper. "The miserable simpleton! Rachel, Alick was right. I thought, I little thought he would forget how things stand now, but he got back to the old strain, as if—I shall make Lord Keith go to Scotland any way now. I was so thankful to see you and Alick." She proceeded with the agitated vehemence of one who, under a great shock, was saying more than she would have betrayed in a cooler and more guarded mood, "What could possess him? For years he had followed me about like a little dog, and never said more than I let him; and now what folly was in his head, just because I could not walk as far as the ruin with the others. When I said I was going to Scotland, what business had he to—Oh! the others will be coming back, Rachel, could we not go to meet the carriage?"
The attempt to move, however, brought back the feeling of the strain of which she had complained, but she would not give way, and by the help of Rachel's arm, proceeded across the grass to the carriage-drive, where Alick was to meet them. It seemed very far and very hot, and her alternately excited and shame-stricken manner, and sobbing breath, much alarmed Rachel; but when Alick met them, all this seemed to pass away—she controlled herself entirely, declaring herself unhurt, and giving him cheerful messages and excuses for her hostess. Alick put the reins into Rachel's hands, and, after watching her drive off, returned to the party, and delivered the apologies of the ladies; then went in search of his uncle. He did not, however, find him quickly, and then he was so happy with his old friend among a cluster of merry young people, that Alick would not say a word to hasten him home, especially as Rachel would have driven Bessie to Timber End, so that it would only be returning to an empty house. And such was Mr. Clare's sociableness and disability of detaching himself from pleasant conversation, that the uncle and nephew scarcely started for their walk across the park in time for the seven o'clock service. Mr. Clare had never been so completely belated, and, as Alick's assistance was necessary, he could only augur from his wife's absence that she was still at Timber End with his sister.
CHAPTER XXVI. THE END OF CLEVERNESS.
"Where am I? O vanity, We are not what we deem, The sins that hold my heart in thrall, They are more real than all."—Rev. I. WILLIAMS.
As the uncle and nephew came out of church, and approached the yew-tree gate, Rachel came swiftly to meet them. "Oh, Alick! oh, uncle!" she said breathlessly. "Bessie says she is shocked to have turned your house upside down, but we could not go any further. And her baby is born!" Then in answer to exclamations, half-dismayed, half-wondering, "Yes, it is all right, so Nurse Jones says. I could not send to you, for we had to send everywhere at once. Mr. Harvey was not at home, and we telegraphed to London, but no one has come yet, and now I have just written a note to Lord Keith with the news of his son and heir. And, uncle, she has set her heart on your baptizing him directly."
There was some demur, for though the child had made so sudden a rush into the world, there seemed to be no ground for immediate alarm; and Mr. Clare being always at hand, did not think it expedient to give the name without knowing the father's wishes with regard to that hereditary Alexander which had been borne by the dead son of the first marriage. A message, however, came down to hasten him, and when—as he had often before done in cottages—he demanded of Nurse Jones whether private baptism were immediately necessary, she allowed that she saw no pressing danger, but added, "that the lady was in a way about it," and this both Rachel and her maid strongly corroborated. Rachel's maid was an experienced person, whom Mrs. Curtis had selected with a view to Rachel's weak state at the time of her marriage, and she showed herself anxious for anything that might abate Lady Keith's excitement, to which they at length yielded, feeling that resistance might be dangerous to her. She further insisted that the rite should be performed in her presence; nor was she satisfied when Rachel had brought in her uncle, but insisted on likewise calling in her brother, who vaguely anxious, and fully conscious of the small size of the room, had remained down-stairs.
Mr. Clare always baptized his infant parishioners, and no one was anxious about his manner of handling the little one, the touch of whose garments might be familiar, as being no other than his own parish baby linen. He could do no otherwise than give the child the name reiterated by the mother, in weak but impatient accents, "Alexander Clare," her brother's own name, and when the short service was concluded, she called out triumphantly, "Make Alick kiss him, Rachel, and do homage to his young chieftain."
They obeyed her, as she lay watching them, and a very pretty sight she was with her dark hair lying round her, a rosy colour on her cheeks, and light in her eyes; but Mr. Clare thought both her touch and voice feverish, and entreated Rachel not to let her talk. Indeed Alick longed to take Rachel away, but this was not at present feasible, since her maid was occupied with the infant, and Nurse Jones was so entirely a cottage practitioner that she was scarcely an available attendant elsewhere. Bessie herself would by no means have parted with her sister-in-law, nor was it possible to reduce her to silence. "Alexander!" she said joyfully, "I always promised my child that he should not have a stupid second son's name. I had a right to my own father's and brother's name, and now it can't be altered," then catching a shade of disapproval upon Rachel's face, "not that I would have hurried it on if I had not thought it right, poor little fellow, but now I trust he will do nicely, and I do think we have managed it all with less trouble than might have been expected."
Sure by this time that she was talking too much, Rachel was glad to hear that Mr. Harvey was come. He was a friendly, elderly man, who knew them all intimately, having attended Alick through his tedious recovery, and his first measure was to clear the room. Rachel thought that "at her age" he might have accepted her services, rather than her maid's, but she suspected Alick of instigating her exclusion, so eagerly did he pounce on her to make her eat, drink, and lie on the sofa, and so supremely scornful was he of her views of sitting up, a measure which might be the more needful for want of a bed.
On the whole, however, he was satisfied about her; alarm and excitement had restrung her powers, and she knew herself to have done her part, so that she was ready to be both cheerful and important over the evening meal. Mr. Clare was by no means annoyed at this vicissitude, but rather amused at it, and specially diverted at the thought of what would be Mr. Lifford's consternation. Lord Keith's servant had come over, reporting his master to be a good deal worn out by the afternoon's anxiety, and recommending that he should not be again disturbed that night, so he was off their minds, and the only drawback to the pleasantness of the evening was surprise at seeing and hearing nothing from Mr. Harvey. The London doctor arrived, he met him and took him up-stairs at once; and then ensued a long stillness, all attempts at conversation died away, and Alick only now and then made attempts to send his companions to bed. Mr. Clare went out to the hall to listen, or Rachel stole up to the extemporary nursery to consult Nurse Jones, whom she found very gruff at having been turned out in favour of the stranger maid.
It was a strange time of suspense. Alick made Rachel lie on the sofa, and she almost heard the beating of her own heart; he sat by her, trying to seem to read, and his uncle stood by the open window, where the tinkle of a sheep bell came softly in from the meadows, and now and then the hoot of the owl round the church tower made the watchers start. To watch that calm and earnest face was their great help in that hour of alarm; those sightless eyes, and broad, upraised spiritual brow seemed so replete with steadfast trust and peace, that the very sight was soothing and supporting to the young husband and wife, and when the long strokes of twelve resounded from the church tower, Mr. Clare, turning towards them, began in his full, musical voice to repeat Bishop Ken's noble midnight hymn—
"My God, now I from sleep awake, The sole possession of me take; From midnight terrors me secure, And guard my soul from thoughts impure."
To Rachel, who had so often heard that hour strike amid a tumult of midnight miseries, there was something in these words inexpressibly gentle and soothing; the tears sprang into her eyes, as if she had found the spell to chase the grisly phantoms, and she clasped her husband's hand, as though to communicate her comfort.
"Oh may I always ready stand, With my lamp burning in my hand; May I in sight of Heaven rejoice, Whene'er I hear the Bridegroom's voice."
Mr. Clare had just repeated this verse, when he paused, saying, "They are coming down," and moved quickly to meet them in the hall. Alick followed him to the door, but as they entered the dining-room, after a moment's hesitation, returned to Rachel, as she sat upright and eager. "After all, this may mean nothing," he said.
"Oh, we don't make it better by fancying it nothing," said Rachel. "Let us try to meet it like your uncle. Oh, Alick, it seemed all this time as if I could pray again, as I never could since those sad times. He seemed so sure, such a rock to help and lean on."
He drew her close to him. "You are praying for her!" he murmured, his soul so much absorbed in his sister that he could not admit other thoughts, and still they waited and watched till other sounds were heard. The London doctor was going away. Alick sprang to the door, and opened it as his uncle's hand was on the lock. There was a mournful, solemn expression on his face, as they gazed mutely up in expectation.
"Children," he said, "it is as we feared. This great sorrow is coming on us."
"Then there is danger," said Alick with stunned calmness.
"More than danger," said his uncle, "they have tried all that skill can do."
"Was it the fall?" said Alick.
"It was my bad management, it always is," said Rachel, ever affirmative.
"No, dear child," said Mr. Clare, "there was fatal injury in the fall, and even absolute stillness for the last few hours could hardly have saved her. You have nothing to reproach yourself with."
"And now!" asked Alick, hoarsely.
"Much more exhausted than when we were with her; sometimes faint, but still feverish. They think it may last many hours yet, poor dear child, she has so much youth and strength."
"Does she know?"
"Harvey thought some of their measures alarmed her, but they soothed and encouraged her while they saw hope, and he thinks she has no real fears."
"And how is it to be—" said Alick. "She ought—"
"Yes; Harvey thinks she ought, she is fully herself, and it can make no difference now. He is gone to judge about coming up at once; but Alick, my poor boy, you must speak to her. I have found that without seeing the face I cannot judge what my words may be doing."
Rachel asked about poor Lord Keith, and was told that he was to be left in quiet that night, unless his wife should be very anxious for him at once. Mr. Harvey came down, bringing word that his patient was asking urgently for Mrs. Keith.
"You had better let me go in first," said Alick, his face changed by the firm but tender awe-struck look.
"Not if she is asking for me," said Rachel, moving on, her heart feeling as if it would rend asunder, but her looks composed.
Bessie's face was in shade, but her voice had the old ring of coaxing archness. "I thought you would stay to see the doctors off. They had their revenge for our stealing a march on them, and have prowled about me till I was quite faint; and now I don't feel a bit like sleep, though I am so tired. Would Alick think me very wicked if I kept you a little while? Don't I see Alick's shadow? Dear old fellow, are you come to wish me good-night? That is good of you. I am not going to plague you any more, Alick, I shall be so good now! But what?" as he held back the curtain, and the light fell on his face, "Oh! there is nothing wrong with the baby?"
"No, dear Bessie, not with the baby," said Alick, with strong emphasis.
"What, myself?" she said quickly, turning her eyes from one face to the other.
Alick told her the state of the case. Hers was a resolute character, or perhaps the double nature that had perplexed and chafed her brother was so integral that nothing could put it off. She fully comprehended, but as if she and herself were two separate persons. She asked how much time might be left to her, and hearing the doctor's opinion, said, "Then I think my poor old Lord Keith had better have his night's rest in peace. But, oh! I should like to speak to Colin. Send for him, Alick; telegraph, Alick; he is at the Paddington Hotel. Send directly."
She was only tranquillised by her brother beginning to write a telegraphic message.
"Rachel," she said, presently, "Ermine must marry him now, and see to Lord Keith, and the little one—tell her so, please," then with her unfailing courtesy, "he will seem like your own child, dear Rachel, and you should have him; but you'll have a wandering home with the dear old Highlanders. Oh! I wonder if he will ever go into them, there must always be a Keith there, and they say he is sure of the Victoria Cross, though papa will not send up his name because of being his own son." Then passing her hand over her face, she exclaimed—"Wasn't I talking great nonsense, Rachel? I don't seem able to say what I mean."
"It is weakness, dearest," said Rachel, "perhaps you might gain a little strength if you were quite still and listened to my uncle."
"Presently. O Rachel! I like the sound of your voice; I am glad Alick has got you. You suit him better than his wicked little sister ever did. You have been so kind to me to-night, Rachel; I never thought I should have loved you so well, when I quizzed you. I did use you ill then, Rachel, but I think you won Alick by it just by force of contrast,"—she was verging into the dreamy voice, and Rachel requested her to rest and be silent.
"It can't make any difference," said Bessie, "and I'll try to be quiet and do all right, if you'll just let me have my child again. I do want to know who he is like. I am so glad it is not he that was hurt. Oh! I did so want to have brought him up to be like Alick."
The infant was brought, and she insisted on being lifted to see its face, which she declared to resemble her brother; but here her real self seemed to gain the mastery, and calling it a poor little motherless thing, she fell into a fit of violent convulsive weeping, which ended in a fainting fit, and this was a fearfully perceptible stage on her way to the dark valley.
She was, however, conscious when she revived, and sent for her uncle, whom she begged to let her be laid in his churchyard, "near the willow-tree; not next to my aunt, I'm not good enough," she said, "but I could not bear that old ruined abbey, where all the Keiths go, and Alick always wanted me to be here—Alick was right!"
The dreamy mist was coming on, nor was it ever wholly dispelled again. She listened, or seemed to listen, to her uncle's prayers, but whenever he ceased, she began to talk—perhaps sensibly at first, but soon losing the thread—sometimes about her child or husband, sometimes going back to those expressions of Charles Carleton that had been so dire a shock to her. "He ought not! I thought he knew better! Alick was right! Come away, Rachel, I'll never see him again. I have done nothing that he should insult me. Alick was right!"
Then would come the sobs, terrible in themselves, and ending in fainting, and the whole scene was especially grievous to Alick, even more than to either of the others, for as her perception failed her, association carried her back to old arguments with him, and sometimes it was, "Alick, indeed you do like to attribute motives," sometimes, "Indeed it is not all self-deception," or the recurring wail, "Alick is right, only don't let him be so angry!" If he told her how far he was from anger, she would make him kiss her, or return to some playful rejoinder, more piteous to hear than all, or in the midst would come on the deadly swoon.
Morning light was streaming into the room when one of these swoons had fallen on her, and no means of restoration availed to bring her back to anything but a gasping condition, in which she lay supported in Rachel's arms. The doctor had his hand on her pulse, the only sounds outside were the twittering of the birds, and within, the ticking of the clock, Alick's deep-drawn breaths, and his uncle's prayer. Rachel felt a thrill pass through the form she was supporting, she looked at Mr. Harvey, and understood his glance, but neither moved till Mr. Clare's voice finished, when the doctor said, "I feared she would have suffered much more. Thank God!"
He gently relieved Rachel from the now lifeless weight, and they knelt on for some moments in complete stillness, except that Alick's breath became more laboured, and his shuddering and shivering could no longer be repressed. Rachel was excessively terrified to perceive that his whole frame was trembling like an aspen leaf. He rose, however, bent to kiss his sister's brow, and steadying himself by the furniture, made for the door. The others followed him, and in a few rapid words Rachel was assured that her fears were ungrounded, it was only an attack of his old Indian fever, which was apt to recur on any shock, but was by no means alarming, though for the present it must be given way to. Indeed, his teeth were chattering too much for him to speak intelligibly, when he tried to tell Rachel to rest and not think of him.
This of course was impossible, and the sun had scarcely risen, before he was placed in his old quarters, the bed in the little inner study, and Rachel watched over him while Mr. Clare had driven off with the doctor to await the awakening of Lord Keith.
Rachel had never so much needed strength. It was hard to believe the assurances of Alick, the doctor, and the whole house, that his condition was not critical, for he was exceedingly ill for some hours, the ailment having been coming on all night, though it was forced back by the resolute will, and it was aggravated by the intensity of his grief, which on the other hand broke forth the more violently from the failure of the physical powers. The brother and sister had been so long alone in the world together, and with all her faults she had been so winning, that it was a grievous loss to him, coming too in the full bloom of her beauty and prosperity, when he was conscious of having dealt severely with her foibles. All was at an end—that double thread of brilliant good-nature and worldly selfishness, with the one strand of sound principle sometimes coming into sight. The life was gone from the earth in its incompleteness, without an unravelling of its complicated texture, and the wandering utterances that revealed how entirely the brother stood first with her, added poignancy to his regret for having been harsh with her. It could hardly be otherwise than that his censures, however just, should now recoil upon him, and in vain did Rachel try to point out that every word of his sister's had proved that her better sense had all along acquiesced—he only felt what it might have been if he had been more indulgent and less ironical, and gave himself infinitely harder measure than he ever could have shown to her. It was long before the suffering, either mental or bodily, by any means abated, and Rachel felt extremely lonely, deserted, and doubtful whether she were in any way ministering to his relief, but at last a gleam of satisfaction came upon her. He evidently did like her attendance on him, and he began to say something about Bessie's real love and esteem for her—softer grief was setting in, and the ailment was lessening.
The summer morning was advancing, and the knell rung out its two deep notes from the church tower. Rachel had been dreading the effect on him, but he lay still, as if he had been waiting for it, and was evidently counting the twenty-three strokes that told the age of the deceased. Then he said he was mending, and that he should fall asleep if Rachel would leave him, see after the poor child, and if his uncle should not come home within the next quarter of an hour take measures to silence the bell for the morning service; after which, he laid his injunctions on her to rest, or what should he say to her mother? And the approach to a smile with which these last words were spoken, enabled Rachel to obey in some comfort.
After satisfying herself that the child was doing well, Rachel was obliged to go into her former room, and there to stand face to face with the white, still countenance so lately beaming with life. She was glad to be alone. The marble calm above all counteracted and drove aside the painful phantom left by Lovedy's agony, and yet the words of that poor, persecuted, suffering child came surging into her mind full of peace and hope. Perhaps it was the first time she had entered into what it is for weak things to confound the wise, or how things hidden from the intellectual can be revealed to babes; and she hid her face in her hands, and was thankful for the familiar words of old, "That we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life."
The continued clang of the bell warned her. She looked round at the still uncleared room, poor Bessie's rings and bracelets lying mingled with her own on the toilet table, and her little clock, Bessie's own gift, standing ticking on as it had done at her peaceful rising only yesterday morning.
She took out her hat, and was on her way to silence the bell-ringer, when Mr. Clare was driven up to the churchyard gate.
Lord Keith had been greatly shocked, but not overpowered, he had spoken calmly, and made minute inquiries, and Mr. Clare was evidently a little disappointed, repeating that age and health made a difference, and that people showed their feelings in various ways. Colonel Keith had been met at the station, and was with his brother, but would come to make arrangements in the course of the day. Rachel begged to stop the bell, representing that the assembled congregation included no male person capable of reading the lessons; but Mr. Clare answered, "No, my dear, this is not a day to do without such a beginning. We must do what we can. Or stay, it is the last chapter of St. John. I could hardly fail in that. Sit near me, and give me the word if I do, unless you want to be with Alick."
As Rachel knelt that day, the scales of self-conceit seemed to have gone. She had her childhood's heart again. Her bitter remorse, her afterthoughts of perplexity had been lulled in the long calm of the respite, and when roused again, even by this sudden sorrow, she woke to her old trust and hope. And when she listened to the expressive though calm rehearsal of that solemn sunrise-greeting to the weary darkling fishers on the shore of the mountain lake, it was to her as if the form so long hidden from her by mists of her own raising, once more shone forth, smoothing the vexed waters of her soul, and she could say with a new thrill of recognition, "It is the Lord."
Once Mr. Clare missed a word, and paused for aid. She was crying too much to be ready, and, through her tears, could not recover the passage so as to prompt him before he had himself recalled the verse. Perhaps a sense of failure was always good for Rachel, but she was much concerned, and her apologies quite distressed Mr. Clare.
"Dear child, no one could be expected to keep the place when there was so much to dwell on in the very comfort of the chapter. And now if you are not in haste, would you take me to the place that dear Bessie spoke of, by the willow-tree. I am almost afraid little Mary Lawrence's grave may have left too little space."
Rachel guided him to a lovely spot, almost overhanging the stream, with the dark calm pools beneath the high bank, and the willow casting a long morning shadow over it. Her mind went back to the merry drive from Avoncester, when she had first seen Elizabeth Keith, and had little dreamt that in one short year she should be choosing the spot for her grave. Mr. Clare paced the green nook and was satisfied, asking if it were not a very pretty place.
"Yes," said Rachel, "there is such a quiet freshness, and the willow-tree seems to guard it."
"Is there not a white foxglove on the bank?"
"Yes, but with only a bell or two left at the top of the side spikes."
"Your aunt sowed the seed. It is strange that I was very near choosing this place nine years ago, but it could not be seen from my window, which was an object with me then."
Just then his quick ear detected that some one was at the parsonage door, and Rachel, turning round, exclaimed with horror, "It is that unhappy Mr. Carleton."
"Poor young fellow," said Mr. Clare, with more of pity than of anger, "I had better speak to him."
But they were far from the path, and it was not possible to guide the blind steps rapidly between the graves and head stones, so that before the pathway was reached young Carleton must have received the sad reply to his inquiries, for hurrying from the door he threw himself on his horse, and rode off at full speed.
By the afternoon, when Colonel Keith came to Bishopsworthy, Alick was lying on the sofa with such a headache that he could neither see nor spell, and Rachel was writing letters for him, both in the frame of mind in which the Colonel's genuine warm affection and admiration for Bessie was very comforting, assisting them in putting all past misgivings out of sight. He had induced his brother to see Mr. Harvey, and the result had been that Lord Keith had consented to a consultation the next day with an eminent London surgeon, since it was clear that the blow, not the sciatica, was answerable for the suffering which was evidently becoming severe. The Colonel of course intended to remain with his brother, at least till after the funeral.
"Can you?" exclaimed Alick. "Ought you not to be at Avoncester?"
"I am not a witness, and the case is in excellent hands."
"Could you not run down? I shall be available tomorrow, and I could be with Lord Keith."
"Thank you, Alick, it is impossible for me to leave him," said Colin, so quietly that no one could have guessed how keenly he felt the being deprived of bringing her brother to Ermine, and being present at the crisis to which all his thoughts and endeavours had so long been directed.
That assize day had long been a dream of dread to Rachel, and perhaps even more so to her husband. Yet how remote its interest actually seemed! They scarcely thought of it for the chief part of the day. Alick looking very pale, though calling himself well, went early to Timber End, and he had not long been gone before a card was brought in, with an urgent entreaty that Mrs. Keith would see Mrs. Carleton. Rachel longed to consult Mr. Clare, but he had gone out to a sick person, and she was obliged to decide that Alick could scarcely wish her to refuse, reluctant and indignant as she felt. But her wrath lessened as she saw the lady's tears and agitation, so great that for a moment no words were possible, and the first were broken apologies for intruding, "Nothing should have induced her, but her poor son was in such a dreadful state."
Rachel again became cold and stern, and did not relent at the description of Charlie's horror and agony; for she was wondering at the audacity of mentioning his grief to the wife of Lady Keith's brother, and thinking that this weak, indulgent mother was the very person to make a foolish, mischievous son, and it was on her tongue's end that she did not see to what she was indebted for the favour of such a visit. Perhaps Mrs. Carleton perceived her resentment, for she broke off, and urgently asked if poor dear Lady Keith had alluded to anything that had passed. "Yes," Rachel was is forced to say; and when again pressed as to the manner of alluding, replied, that "she was exceedingly distressed and displeased," with difficulty refraining from saying who had done all the mischief. Mrs. Carleton was in no need of hearing it. "Ah!" she said, "it was right, quite right. It was very wrong of my poor boy. Indeed I am not excusing him, but if you only knew how he blames himself."
"I am sure he ought," Rachel could not help saying. Mrs. Carleton here entreated her to listen, and seized her hand, so that there was no escape. The tale was broken and confused, but there could be little doubt of its correctness. Poor Bessie had been the bane of young Carleton's life. She had never either decidedly accepted or repelled his affection, but, as she had truly said, let him follow her like a little dog, and amused herself with him in the absence of better game. He was in his father's office, but her charms disturbed his application to business and kept him trifling among the croquet lawns of Littleworthy, whence his mother never had the resolution to banish her spoilt child. At last Miss Keith's refusal of him softened by a half-implied hope, sent him forth to his uncle at Rio, on the promise that if he did his utmost there, he should in three years be enabled to offer Miss Keith more than a competence. With this hope he had for the first time applied himself to business in earnest, when he received the tidings of her marriage, and like a true spoilt child broke down at once in resolution, capacity, and health, so that his uncle was only too glad to ship him off for England. And when Lady Keith made her temporary home in her old neighbourhood, the companionship began again, permitted by her in good nature, and almost contempt, and allowed by his family in confidence of the rectitude of both parties; and indeed nothing could be more true than that no harm had been intended. But it was perilous ground; ladies, however highly principled, cannot leave off self-pleasing habits all at once, and the old terms returned sufficiently to render the barrier but slightly felt. When Lady Keith had spoken of her intention of leaving Timber End, the reply had been the old complaint of her brother's harshness and jealousy of his ardent and lasting affection, and reproof had not at once silenced him. This it was that had so startled her as to make her hurry to her brother's side, unheeding of her steps.
As far as Rachel could make out, the poor young man's grief and despair had been poured out to his mother, and she, unable to soothe, had come to try to extract some assurance that the catastrophe had been unconnected with his folly. A very slight foundation would have served her, but this Rachel would not give, honestly believing him the cause of the accident, and also that the shock to the sense of duty higher than he could understand had occasioned the excitement which had destroyed the slender possibility of recovery. She pitied the unhappy man more than she had done at first, and she was much pained by his mother's endeavours to obtain a palliative for him, but she could not be untrue. "Indeed," she said, "I fear no one can say it was not so; I don't think anything is made better by blinking the reality."
"Oh, Mrs. Keith, it is so dreadful. I cannot tell my poor son. I don't know what might be the consequence."
Tears came into Rachel's eyes. "Indeed," she said, "I am very sorry for you. I believe every one knows that I have felt what it is to be guilty of fatal mischief, but, indeed, indeed I am sure that to realize it all is the only way to endure it, so as to be the better for it. Believe me, I am very sorry, but I don't think it would be any real comfort to your son to hear that poor Bessie had never been careful, or that I was inexperienced, or the nurse ignorant. It is better to look at it fairly. I hear Mr. Clare coming in. Will you see him?" she added suddenly, much relieved.
But Mrs. Carleton did not wish to see him, and departed, thinking Alick Keith's wife as bad as had ever been reported, and preparing an account of her mismanagement wherewith to remove her son's remorse.
She was scarcely gone, and Rachel had not had time to speak to Mr. Clare, before another visitor was upon her, no other than Lord Keith's daughter, Mrs. Comyn Menteith; or, as she introduced herself, "I'm Isabel. I came down from London to-day because it was so very shocking and deplorable, and I am dying to see my poor little brother and uncle Colin. I must keep away from poor papa till the doctors are gone, so I came here."
She was a little woman in the delicately featured style of sandy prettiness, and exceedingly talkative and good-natured. The rapid tongue, though low and modulated, jarred painfully on Rachel's feelings in the shaded staircase, and she was glad to shut the door of the temporary nursery, when Mrs. Menteith pounced upon the poor little baby, pitying him with all her might, comparing him with her own children, and asking authoritative questions, coupled with demonstrations of her intention of carrying him off to her own nursery establishment, which had been left in Scotland with a head nurse, whose name came in with every fourth word—that is, if he lived at all, which she seemed to think a hopeless matter.
She spoke of "poor dear Bessie," with such affection as was implied in "Oh, she was such a darling! I got on with her immensely. Why didn't you send to me, though I don't know that Donald would have let me come," and she insisted on learning the whole history, illustrating it profusely with personal experiences. Rachel was constantly hoping to be released from a subject so intensely painful; but curiosity prevailed through the chatter, and kept hold of the thread of the story. Mrs. Menteith decidedly thought herself defrauded of a summons. "It was very odd of them all not to telegraph for me. Those telegrams are such a dreadful shock. There came one just as I set out from Timber End, and I made sure little Sandie was ill at home, for you know the child is very delicate, and there are so many things going about, and what with all this dreadful business, I was ready to faint, and after all it was only a stupid thing for Uncle Colin from those people at Avoncester."
"You do not know what it was?"
"Somebody was convicted or acquitted, I forget which, but I know it had something to do with Uncle Colin's journey to Russia; so ridiculous of him at his age, when he ought to know better, and so unlucky for all the family, his engagement to that swindler's sister. By-the-bye, did he not cheat you out of ever so much money?"
"Oh, that had nothing to do with it—it was not Miss Williams's brother—it was not he that was tried."
"Wasn't he? I thought he was found guilty or something; but it is very unfortunate for the family, for Uncle Colin won't give her up, though she is a terrible cripple, too. And to tell you a secret, it was his obstinacy that made papa marry again; and now it is of no use, this poor little fellow will never live, and this sharper's sister will be Lady Keith after all! So unlucky! Papa says she is very handsome, and poor Bessie declares she is quite ladylike."
"The most superior person I ever knew," said Rachel, indignantly.
"Ah, yes, of course she must be very clever and artful if her brother is a swindler."
"But indeed he is not, he was cheated; the swindler was Maddox."
"Oh, but he was a glass-blower, or something, I know, and her sister is a governess. I am sure it is no fault of mine! The parties I gave to get him and Jessie Douglas together! Donald was quite savage about the bills. And after all Uncle Colin went and caught cold, and would not come! I would not have minded half so much if it had been Jessie Douglas; but to have her at Gowanbrae—a glass-blower's daughter—isn't it too bad?"
"Her father was a clergyman of a good Welsh family."
"Was he? Then her brother or somebody had something to do with glass."
Attempts at explanation were vain, the good lady had an incapacity of attention, and was resolved on her grievance. She went away at last because "those horrid doctors will be gone now, and I will be able to see poor papa, and tell him when I will take home the baby, though I don't believe he will live to be taken anywhere, poor dear little man."
She handled him go much more scientifically than Rachel could do, that it was quite humiliating, and yet to listen to her talk, and think of committing any child to her charge was sickening, and Rachel already felt a love and pity for her little charge that made her wretched at the thoughts of the prognostic about him.
"You are tired with your visitors my dear," said Mr. Clare, holding out his hand towards her, when she returned to him.
"How do you know?" she asked.
"By the sound of your move across the room, and the stream of talk I heard above must be enough to exhaust any one."
"She thinks badly of that poor child," said Rachel, her voice trembling.
"My dear, it would take a good deal to make me uneasy about anything I heard in that voice."
"And if he lives, she is to have the charge of him," added Rachel.
"That is another matter on which I would suspend my fears," said Mr. Clare. "Come out, and take a turn in the peacock path. You want air more than rest. So you have been talked to death."
"And I am afraid she is gone to talk Alick to death! I wonder when Alick will come home," she proceeded, as they entered on the path. "She says Colonel Keith had a telegram about the result of the trial, but she does not know what it was, nor indeed who was tried."
"Alick will not keep you in doubt longer than he can help," said Mr. Clare.
"You know all about it;" said Rachel. "The facts every one must know, but I mean that which led to them."
"Alick told me you had suffered very much."
"I don't know whether it is a right question, but if it is, I should much like to know what Alick did say. I begged him to tell you all, or it would not have been fair towards you to bring me here."
"He told me that he knew you had been blind and wilful, but that your confidence had been cruelly abused, and you had been most unselfish throughout."
"I did not mean so much what I had done as what I am—what I was."
"The first time he mentioned you, it was as one of the reasons that he wished to take our dear Bessie to Avonmouth. He said there was a girl there of a strong spirit, independent and thorough-going, and thinking for herself. He said, 'to be sure, she generally thinks wrong, but there's a candour and simplicity about her that make her wildest blunders better than parrot commonplace,' and he thought your reality might impress his sister. Even then I gathered what was coming."
"And how wrong and foolish you must have thought it."
"I hoped I might trust my boy's judgment."
"Indeed, you could not think it worse for him than I did; but I was ill and weak, and could not help letting Alick do what he would; but I have never understood it. I told him how unsettled my views were, and he did not seem to mind—"
"My dear, may I ask if this sense of being unsettled is with you still?"
"I don't know! I had no power to read or think for a long time, and now, since I have been here, I hope it has not been hypocrisy, for going on in your way and his has been very sweet to me, and made me feel as I used when I was a young girl, with only an ugly dream between. I don't like to look at it, and yet that dream was my real life that I made for myself."
"Dear child, I have little doubt that Alick knew it would come to this."
Rachel paused. "What, you and he think a woman's doubts so vague and shallow as to be always mastered by a husband's influence?"
Mr. Clare was embarrassed. If he had thought so he had not expected her to make the inference. He asked her if she could venture to look back on her dream so as to mention what had chiefly distressed her. He could not see her frowning effort at recollection, but after a pause, she said, "Things will seem to you like trifles, indeed, individual criticisms appear so to me; but the difficulty to my mind is that I don't see these objections fairly grappled with. There is either denunciation or weak argument; but I can better recollect the impression on my own mind than what made it."
"Yes, I know that feeling; but are you sure you have seen all the arguments?"
"I cannot tell—perhaps not. Whenever I get a book with anything in it, somebody says it is not sound."
"And you therefore conclude that a sound book can have nothing in it?" he asked, smiling.
"Well, most of the new 'sound' books that I have met are just what my mother and sister like—either dull, or sentimental and trashy."
"Perhaps those that get into popular circulation do deserve some of your terms for them. Illogical replies break down and carry off some who have pinned their faith to them; but are you sure that though you have read much, you have read deep?"
"I have read more deeply than any one I know—women, I mean—or than any man ever showed me he had read. Indeed, I am trying not to say it in conceit, but Ermine Williams does not read argumentative books, and gentlemen almost always make as if they knew nothing about them."
"I think you may be of great use to me, my dear, if you will help me. The bishop has desired me to preach the next visitation sermon, and he wishes it to be on some of these subjects. Now, if you will help me with the book work, it will be very kind in you, and might serve to clear your mind about some of the details, though you must be prepared for some questions being unanswered."
"Best so," replied Rachel, "I don't like small answers to great questions."
"Nor I. Only let us take care not to get absorbed in admiring the boldness that picks out stones to be stumbled over."
"Do you object to my having read, and thought, and tried?"
"Certainly not. Those who have the capability should, if they feel disturbed, work out the argument. Nothing is gained while it is felt that both sides have not been heard. I do not myself believe that a humble, patient, earnest spirit can go far wrong, though it may for a time be tried, and people often cry out at the first stumbling block, and then feel committed to the exclamations they have made."
The conversation was here ended by the sight of Alick coming slowly and wearily in from the churchyard, looking as if some fresh weight were upon him, and he soon told them that the doctors had pronounced that Lord Keith was in a critical state, and would probably have much to suffer from the formation that had begun where he had received the neglected bruise in the side. No word of censure of poor Bessie had been breathed, nor did Alick mention her name, but he deeply suffered under the fulfilment of his own predictions, and his subdued, dejected manner expressed far more than did his words. Rachel asked how Lord Keith seemed.
"Oh, there's no getting at his feelings. He was very civil to me—asked after you, Rachel—told me to give you his thanks, but not a single word about anything nearer. Then I had to read the paper to him—all that dinner at Liverpool, and he made remarks, and expected me to know what it was about. I suppose he does feel; the Colonel says he is exceedingly cut up, and he looks like a man of eighty, infinitely worse than last time I saw him, but I don't know what to make of him."
"And, Alick, did you hear the verdict?"
"That man at Avoncester. Mrs. Menteith said there had been a telegram."
Alick looked startled. "This has put everything out of my head!" he said. "What was the verdict?"
"That was just what she could not tell. She did not quite know who was tried."
"And she came here and harassed you with it," he said, looking at her anxiously. "As if you had not gone through enouqh already."
"Never mind that now. It seems so long ago now that I can hardly think much about it, and I have had another visitor," she added, as Mr. Clare left them to themselves, "Mrs. Carleton—that poor son of hers is in such distress."
"She has been palavering you over," he said, in a tone more like displeasure than he had ever used towards her.
"Indeed, Alick, if you would listen, you would find him very much to be pitied."
"I only wish never to hear of any of them again." He did not speak like himself, and Rachel was aghast.
"I thought you would not object to my letting her in," she began.
"I never said I did," he answered; "I can never think of him but as having caused her death, and it was no thanks to him that there was nothing worse."
The sternness of his manner would have silenced Rachel but for her strong sense of truth and justice, which made her persevere in saying, "There may have been more excuse than you believe."
"Do you suppose that is any satisfaction to me?" He walked decidedly away, and entered by the library window, and she stood grieved and wondering whether she had been wrong in pitying, or whether he were too harsh in his indignation. It was a sign that her tone and spirit had recovered, that she did not succumb in judgment, though she felt utterly puzzled and miserable till she recollected how unwell, weary, and unhappy he was, and that every fresh perception of his sister's errors was like a poisoned arrow to him; and then she felt shocked at having obtruded the subject on him at all, and when she found him leaning back in his chair, spent and worn out, she waited on him in the quietest, gentlest way she could accomplish, and tried to show that she had put the subject entirely aside. However, when they were next alone together, he turned his face away and muttered, "What did that woman say to you?"
"Oh, Alick, I am sorry I began! It only gives you pain."
She did go on till she had told all, and he uttered no word of comment. She longed to ask whether he disapproved of her having permitted the interview; but as he did not again recur to the topic, it was making a real and legitimate use of strength of mind to abstain from tearing him on the matter. Yet when she recollected what worldly honour would once have exacted of a military man, and the conflicts between religion and public opinion, she felt thankful indeed that half a century lay between her and that terrible code, and even as it was, perceiving the strong hold that just resentment had taken on her husband's silently determined nature, she could not think of the neighbourhood of the Carleton family without dread.
CHAPTER XXVII. THE POST BAG.
"Thefts, like ivy on a ruin, make the rifts they seem to shade."— C. G. DUFFY.
"August 3d, 7 A. M.
"My Dear Colonel Keith,—Papa is come, and I have got up so early in the morning that I have nothing to do but to write to you before we go in to Avoncester. Papa and Mr. Beechum came by the six o'clock train, and Lady Temple sent me in the waggonette to meet them. Aunt Ailie would not go, because she was afraid Aunt Ermine would get anxious whilst she was waiting. I saw papa directly, and yet I did not think it could be papa, because you were not there, and he looked quite past me, and I do not think he would have found me or the carriage at all if Mr. Beechum had not known me. And then, I am afraid I was very naughty, but I could not help crying just a little when I found you had not come; but perhaps Lady Keith may be better, and you may come before I go into court to-day, and then I shall tear up this letter. I am afraid papa thought I was unkind to cry when he was just come home, for he did not talk to me near so much as Mr. Beechum did, and his eyes kept looking out as if he did not see anything near, only quite far away. And I suppose Russian coats must be made of some sort of sheep that eats tobacco."
"August 3d, 10 A. M.
"Dearest Colin,—I have just lighted on poor little Rosie's before-breakfast composition, and I can't refrain from sending you her first impressions, poor child, though no doubt they will alter, as she sees more of her father. All are gone to Avoncester now, though with some doubts whether this be indeed the critical day; I hope it may be, the sooner this is over the better, but I am full of hope. I cannot believe but that the Providence that has done so much to discover Edward's innocence to the world, will finish the work! I have little expectation though of your coming down in time to see it, the copy of the telegraphic message, which you sent by Harry, looks as bad as possible, and even allowing something for inexperience and fright, things must be in a state in which you could hardly leave your brother, so unwell as he seems.
"2 p.m. I was interrupted by Lady Temple, who was soon followed by Mrs. Curtis, burning to know whether I had any more intelligence than had floated to them. Pray, if you can say anything to exonerate poor Rachel from mismanagement, say it strongly; her best friends are so engaged in wishing themselves there, and pitying poor Bessie for being in her charge, that I long to confute them, for I fully believe in her sense and spirit in any real emergency that she had not ridden out to encounter.
"And I have written so far without a word on the great subject of all, the joy untold for which our hearts had ached so long, and which we owe entirely to you, for Edward owns that nothing but your personal representations would have brought him, and, as I suppose you already know—he so much hated the whole subject of Maddox's treachery that he had flung aside, unread, all that he saw related to it. Dear Colin, whatever else you have done, you have filled a famished heart. Could you but have seen Ailie's face all last evening as she sat by his side, you would have felt your reward—it was as if the worn, anxious, almost stern mask had been taken away, and our Ailie's face was beaming out as of old when she was the family pet, before Julia took her away to be finished. She sees no change; she is in an ecstasy of glamour that makes her constantly repeat her rejoicings that Edward is so much himself, so unchanged, till I almost feel unsisterly for seeing in him the traces that these sad years have left, and that poor little Rose herself has detected. No, he is not so much changed as exaggerated. The living to himself, and with so cruel a past, has greatly increased the old dreaminess that we always tried to combat, and he seems less able than before to turn his mind into any channel but the one immediately before him. He is most loving when roused, but infinitely more inclined to fall off into a muse. I am afraid you must have had a troublesome charge in him, judging by the uproar Harry makes about the difficulty of getting him safe from Paddington. It is good to see him and Harry together—the old schoolboy ways are so renewed, all bitterness so entirely forgotten, only Harry rages a little that he is not more wrapped up in Rose. To say the truth, so do I; but if it were not for Harry's feeling the same, I should believe that you had taught me to be exacting about my rosebud. Partly, it is that he is disappointed that she is not like her mother; he had made up his mind to another Lucy, and her Williams face took him by surprise, and, partly, he is not a man to adapt himself to a child. She must be trained to help unobtrusively in his occupations; the unknowing little plaything her mother was, she never can be. I am afraid he will never adapt himself to English life again—his soul seems to be in his mines, and if as you say he is happy and valued there—though it is folly to look forward to the wrench again, instead of rejoicing in the present, gladness; but often as I had fashioned that arrival in my fancy, it was never that Harry's voice, not yours, should say the 'Here he is.'
"They all went this morning in the waggonette, and the two boys with Miss Curtis in the carriage. Lady Temple is very kind in coming in and out to enliven me. I am afraid I must close and send this before their return. What a day it is! And how are you passing it? I fear, even at the best, in much anxiety. Lady Temple asks to put in a line.—Yours ever, E. W."
"August 3d, 5 P. M.
"My Dear Colonel,—This is just to tell you that dear Ermine is very well, and bearing the excitement and suspense wonderfully. We were all dreadfully shocked to hear about poor dear Bessie; it is so sad her having no mother nor any one but Rachel to take care of her, though Rachel would do her best, I know. If she would like to have me, or if you think I could do any good, pray telegraph for me the instant you get this letter. I would have come this morning, only I thought, perhaps, she had her aunt. That stupid telegram never said whether her baby was alive, or what it was, I do hope it is all right. I should like to send nurse up at once—I always thought she saved little Cyril when he was so ill. Pray send for nurse or me, or anything I can send: anyway, I know nobody can be such a comfort as you; but the only thing there is to wish about you is, that you could be in two places at once.
"The two boys are gone in to the trial, they were very eager about it; and dear Grace promises to take care of Conrade's throat. Poor boys! they had got up a triumphal arch for your return, but I am afraid I am telling secrets. Dear Ermine is so good and resolutely composed—quite an example.—Yours affectionately,
"F. G. Temple."
"Avoncester, August 3d, 2 P. M.
"My Dear Colonel Keith,—I am just come out of court, and I am to wait at the inn, for Aunt Ailie does not like for me to hear the trial, but she says I may write to you to pass away the time. I am sorry I left my letter out to go this morning, for Aunt Ailie says it is very undutiful to say anything about the sheep's wool in Russia smelling of tobacco. Conrade says it is all smoking, and that every one does it who has seen the world. Papa never stops smoking but when he is with Aunt Ermine, he sat on the box and did it all the way to Avoncester, and Mr. Beechum said it was to compose his mind. After we got to Avoncester we had a long, long time to wait, and first one was called, and then another, and then they wanted me. I was not nearly so frightened as I was that time when you sent for me, though there were so many more people; but it was daylight, and the judge looked so kind, and the lawyer spoke so gently to me, and Mr. Maddox did not look horrid like that first time. I think he must be sorry now he has seen how much he has hurt papa. The lawyer asked me all about the noises, and the lions, and the letters of light, just as Mr. Grey did; and they showed me papa's old seal ring, and asked if I knew it, and a seal that was made with the new one that he got when the other was lost! and I knew them because I used to make impressions on my arms with them when I was a little girl. There was another lawyer that asked how old I was, and why I had not told before; and I thought he was going to laugh at me for a silly little girl, but the judge would not let him, and said I was a clear-headed little maiden; and Mr. Beechum came with Aunt Ailie, and took me out of court, and told me to choose anything in the whole world he should give me, so I chose the little writing case I am writing with now, and 'The Heroes' besides, so I shall be able to read till the others come back, and we go home.—Your affectionate little friend,
"Rose Ermine Williams."
"The Homestead, August 3d, 9 P. M.
"My Dear Alexander,—You made me promise to send you the full account of this day's proceedings, or I do not think I should attempt it, when you may be so sadly engaged. Indeed, I should hardly have gone to Avoncester had the sad intelligence reached me before I had set out, when I thought my sudden return would be a greater alarm to my mother, and I knew that dear Fanny would do all she could for her. Still she has had a very nervous day, thinking constantly of your dear sister, and of Rachel's alarm and inexperience; but her unlimited confidence in your care of Rachel is some comfort, and I am hoping that the alarm may have subsided, and you may be all rejoicing. I have always thought that, with dear Rachel, some new event or sensation would most efface the terrible memories of last spring. My mother is now taking her evening nap, and I am using the time for telling you of the day's doings. I took with me Fanny's two eldest, who were very good and manageable, and we met Mr. Grey, who put us in very good places, and told us the case was just coming on. You will see the report in detail in the paper, so I will only try to give you what you would not find there. I should tell you that Maddox has entirely dropped his alias. Mr. Grey is convinced that was only a bold stroke to gain time and prevent the committal, so as to be able to escape, and that he 'reckoned upon bullying a dense old country magistrate;' but that he knew it was quite untenable before a body of unexceptionable witnesses. Altogether the man looked greatly altered and crest-fallen, and there was a meanness and vulgarity in his appearance that made me wonder at our ever having credited his account of himself. He had an abject look, very unlike his confident manner at the sessions, nor did he attempt his own defence. Mr. Grey kept on saying he must know that he had not a leg to stand upon.
"The counsel for the prosecution told the whole story, and it was very touching. I had never known the whole before; the sisters are so resolute and uncomplaining: but how they must have suffered when every one thought them ruined by their brother's fraud! I grieve to think how we neglected them, and only noticed them when it suited our convenience. Then he called Mr. Beechum, and you will understand better than I can all about the concern in which they were embarked, and Maddox coming to him for an advance of L300, giving him a note from Mr. Williams, asking for it to carry out an invention. The order for the sum was put into Maddox's hands, and the banker proved the paying it to him by an order on a German bank.
"Then came Mr. Williams. I had seen him for a moment in setting out, and was struck with his strange, lost, dreamy look. There is something very haggard and mournful in his countenance; and, though he has naturally the same fine features as his eldest sister, his cheeks are hollow, his eyes almost glassy, and his beard, which is longer than the Colonel's, very grey. He gave me the notion of the wreck of a man, stunned and crushed, and never thoroughly alive again; but when he stood in the witness-box, face to face with the traitor, he was very different; he lifted up his head, his eyes brightened, his voice became clear, and his language terse and concentrated, so that I could believe in his having been the very able man he was described to be. I am sure Maddox must have quailed under his glance, there was something so loftily innocent in it, yet so wistful, as much as to say, 'how could you abuse my perfect confidence?' Mr. Williams denied having received the money, written the letter, or even thought of making the request. They showed him the impression of two seals. He said one was made with a seal-ring given him by Colonel Keith, and lost some time before he went abroad; the other, with one with which he had replaced it, and which he produced,—he had always worn it on his finger. They matched exactly with the impressions; and there was a little difference in the hair of the head upon the seal that was evident to every one. It amused the boys extremely to see some of the old jurymen peering at them with their glasses. He was asked where he was on the 7th of September (the date of the letter), and he referred to some notes of his own, which enabled him to state that on the 6th he had come back to Prague from a village with a horrible Bohemian name—all cs and zs—which I will not attempt to write, though much depended on the number of the said letters.
"The rest of the examination must have been very distressing, for Maddox's counsel pushed him hard about his reasons for not returning to defend himself, and he was obliged to tell how ill his wife was, and how terrified; and they endeavoured to make that into an admission that he thought himself liable. They tried him with bits of the handwriting, and he could not always tell which were his own;—but I think every one must have been struck with his honourable scrupulosity in explaining every doubt he had.
"Other people were called in about the writing, but Alison Williams was the clearest of all. She was never puzzled by any scrap they showed her, and, moreover, she told of Maddox having sent for her brother's address, and her having copied it from a letter of Mrs. Williams's, which she produced, with the wrong spelling, just as it was in the forgery. The next day had come a letter from the brother, which she showed, saying that they were going to leave the place sooner than they had intended, and spelling it right. She gave the same account of the seals, and nothing ever seemed to disconcert her. My boys were so much excited about their 'own Miss Williams,' that I was quite afraid they would explode into a cheer.
"That poor woman whom we used to call Mrs. Rawlins told her sad story next. She is much worn and subdued, and Mr. Grey was struck with the change from the fierce excitement she showed when she was first confronted with Maddox, after her own trial; but she held fast to the same evidence, giving it not resentfully, but sadly and firmly, as if she felt it to be her duty. She, as you know, explained how Maddox had obtained access to Mr. Williams's private papers, and how she had, afterwards, found in his possession the seal ring, and the scraps of paper in his patron's writing. A policeman produced them, and the seal perfectly filled the wax upon the forged letter. The bits of paper showed that Maddox had been practising imitating Mr. Williams's writing. It all seemed most distinct, but still there was some sharp cross-examination of her on her own part in the matter, and Mr. Grey said it was well that little Rose could so exactly confirm the facts she mentioned.
"Poor, dear little Rose looked very sweet and innocent, and not so much frightened as at her first examination. She told her story of the savage way in which she had been frightened into silence. Half the people in the court were crying, and I am sure it was a mercy that she was not driven out of her senses, or even murdered that night. It seems that she was sent to bed early, but the wretches knowing that she always woke and talked while her mother was going to bed, the phosphoric letters were prepared to frighten her, and detain her in her room, and then Maddox growled at her when she tried to pass the door. She was asked how she knew the growl to be Maddox's, and she answered that she heard him cough. Rachel will, I am sure, remember the sound of that little dry cough. Nothing could make it clearer than that the woman had spoken the truth. The child identified the two seals with great readiness, and then was sent back to the inn that she might not be perplexed with hearing the defence. This, of course, was very trying to us all, since the best the counsel could do for his client was to try to pick holes in the evidence, and make the most of the general acquiescence in Mr. Williams's guilt for all these years. He brought forward letters that showed that Mr. Williams had been very sanguine about the project, and had written about the possibility that an advance might be needed. Some of the letters, which both Mr. Williams and his sister owned to be in his own writing, spoke in most flourishing terms of his plans; and it was proved by documents and witnesses that the affairs were in such a state that bankruptcy was inevitable, so that there was every motive for securing a sum to live upon. It was very miserable all the time this was going on, the whole interpretation, of Mr. Williams's conduct seemed to be so cruelly twisted aside, and it was what every one had all along believed, his absence was made so much of, and all these little circumstances that had seemed so important were held so cheap—one knew it was only the counsel's representation, and yet Alison grew whiter and whiter under it. I wish you could have heard the reply: drawing the picture of the student's absorption and generous confidence, and his agent's treachery, creeping into his household, and brutally playing on the terrors of his child.
"Well, I cannot tell you all, but the judge summed up strongly for a conviction, though he said a good deal about culpable negligence almost inviting fraud, and I fear it must have been very distressing to the Williamses, but the end was that Maddox was found guilty, and sentenced to fourteen years' penal servitude, though I am afraid they will not follow Conrade's suggestion, and chain up a lion by his bed every night of his life.
"We were very happy when we met at the inn, and all shook hands. Dr. Long was, I think, the least at ease. He had come in case this indictment had in any way failed, to bring his own matter forward, so that Maddox should not get off. I do not like him very much, he seemed unable to be really hearty, and I think he must have once been harsh and now ashamed of it. Then he was displeased at Colonel Keith's absence, and could hardly conceal how much he was put out by the cause, as if he thought the Colonel had imposed himself on the family as next heir. I hardly know how to send all this in the present state of things, but I believe you will wish to have it, and will judge how much Rachel will bear to hear. Good night.—Your affectionate Sister,