"Gowanbrae, Avonmouth, August 3d, 11 P. M.
"Dear Keith,—Before this day has ended you must have a few lines from the man whom your exertions have relieved from a stigma, the full misery of which I only know by the comfort of its removal. I told you there was much that could never be restored. I feel this all the more in the presence of all that now remains to me, but I did not know how much could still be given back. The oppression of the load of suspicion under which I laboured now seems to me to have been intolerable since I have been freed from it. I cannot describe how changed a man I have felt, since Beechum shook hands with me. The full blackness of Maddox's treachery I had not known, far less his cruelty to my child. Had I been aware of all I could not have refrained from trying to bring him to justice; but there is no need to enter into the past. It is enough that I owe to you a freed spirit, and new life, and that my gratitude is not lessened by the knowledge that something besides friendship urged you. Ermine is indeed as attractive as ever, and has improved in health far more than I durst expect. I suppose it is your all-powerful influence. You are first with all here, as you well deserve, even my child, who is as lovely and intelligent as you told me, has every thought pervaded with 'the Colonel.' She is a sweet creature; but there was one who will never be retraced, and forgive me, Keith, without her, even triumph must be bitterness.—Still ever most gratefully yours,
"August 3d, 11 P. M.
"Dearest Colin,—The one sound in my ears, the one song in my heart is, 'Let them give thanks.' It is as if we had passed from a dungeon into sunshine. I suppose it would be too much if you were here to share it. They sent Rose in first to tell me, but I knew in the sound of their wheels that all was well. What an evening we have had, but I must not write more. Ailie is watching me like a dragon, and will not rest till I am in bed; but I can't tell how to lose one minute of gladness in sleep. Oh, Colin, Colin, truest of all true knights, what an achievement yours has been!"
"That was a crazy bit that I wrote last night, but I will not make away with it. I don't care how crazy you think me. It would have been a pity not to have slept to wake to the knowledge that all was not a dream, but then came the contrast with the sorrow you are watching. And I have just had your letter. What a sudden close to that joyous life! She was one of the most winning beings, as you truly say, that ever flashed across one's course, and if she had faults, they were those of her day and her training. I suppose, by what you say, that she was too girlish to be all the companion your brother required, and that this may account for his being more shocked than sorrow-stricken, and his child, since he can dwell on the thought, is such a new beginning of hope, that I wonder less than you do at his bearing up so well. Besides, pain dulls the feelings, and is a great occupation. I wish you could have seen that dear Bessie, but I gather that the end came on much more rapidly than had been expected. It seemed as if she were one of those to whom even suffering was strangely lightened and shortened, as if she had met only the flowers of life, and even the thorns and stings were almost lost in their bright blossoms. And she could hardly have lived on without much either of temptation or sorrow. I am glad of your testimony to Rachel's effectiveness, I wrote it out and sent it up to the Homestead. There was a note this morning requesting Edward to come in to see Maddox, and Ailie is gone with him, thinking she may get leave to see poor Maria. Think of writing 'Edward and Ailie again! Dr. Long and Harry are gone with them. The broken thread is better pieced by Harry than by the Doctor; but he wants Ailie and me to go and stay at Belfast. Now I must hear Rose read, in order to bring both her and myself to our reasonable senses."
"5 P. M.
"They have been returned about an hour, and I must try to give you Edward's account of his interview. Maddox has quite dropped his mask, and seems to have been really touched by being brought into contact with Edward again, and, now it is all up with him, seemed to take a kind of pleasure in explaining the whole web, almost, Edward said, with vanity at his own ingenuity. His earlier history was as he used to represent it to Edward. He was a respectable ironmonger's son, with a taste for art; he was not allowed to indulge it, and then came rebellion, and breaking away from home. He studied at the Academy for a few years, but wanted application, and fancied he had begun too late, tried many things and spent a shifty life, but never was consciously dishonest till after he had fallen in with Edward; and the large sums left uninquired for in his hands became a temptation to one already inclined to gambling. His own difficulties drove him on, and before he ventured on the grand stroke, he had been in a course of using the sums in his hands for his own purposes. The finding poor Maria open to the admiration he gave her beauty, put it into his head to make a tool of her; and this was not the first time he had used Edward's seal, or imitated his writing. No wonder there was such a confusion in the accounts as told so much against Edward. He told the particulars, Edward says, with the strangest mixture of remorse and exultation. At last came the journey to Bohemia, and his frauds became the more easy, until he saw there must be a bankruptcy, and made the last bold stroke, investing the money abroad in his own name, so that he would have been ready to escape if Edward had come home again. He never expected but that Edward would have returned, and finding the affairs hopeless, did this deed in order to have a resource. As to regret, he seemed to feel some when he said the effects had gone farther than he anticipated; but 'I could not let him get into that subject,' Edward said, and he soon came back to his amused complacency in his complete hoodwinking of all concerned at home, almost thanking Edward for the facilities his absence had given him. After this, he went abroad, taking Maria lest she should betray him on being cast off; and they lived in such style at German gambling places that destitution brought them back again to England, where he could better play the lecturer, and the artist in search of subscriptions. Edward could not help smiling over some of his good stories, rather as 'the lord' may have 'commended the wisdom of his unjust steward.' Well, here he came, and, as he said, he really could hardly have helped himself; he had only to stand still and let poor Rachel deceive herself, and the whole concern was in a manner thrust upon him. He was always expecting to be able to get the main sum into his hands, as he obtained more confidence from Rachel, and the woodcuts were an over-bold stroke for the purpose; he had not intended her to keep or show them, but her ready credulity tempted him too far; and I cannot help laughing now at poor Edward's reproofs to us for having been all so easily cheated, now that he has been admitted behind the scenes. Maddox never suspected our neighbourhood, he had imagined us to be still in London, and though he heard Alison's name, he did not connect it with us. After all, what you thought would have been fatal to your hopes of tracing him, was really what gave him into our hands—Lady Temple's sudden descent upon their F. U. E. E. If he had not been so hurried and distressed as to be forced to leave Maria and the poor child to her fate, Maria would have held by him to the last and without her testimony where should we have been? But with a summons out against him, and hearing that Maria had been recognised, he could only fly to the place at Bristol that he thought unknown to Maria. Even when seized by the police, he did not know it was she who directed them, and had not expected her evidence till he actually saw and heard her on the night of the sessions. It was all Colonel Keith's doing, he said, every other adversary he would have despised, but your array of forces met him at every corner where he hoped to escape, and the dear little Rosie gave him check-mate, like a gallant little knight's pawn as she is. 'Who could have guessed that child would have such a confounded memory?' he said, for Edward had listened with a sort of interest that had made him quite forget that he was Rose's father, and that this wicked cunning Colonel was working in his cause. So off he goes to penal servitude, and Edward is so much impressed and touched with his sharpness as to predict that he will be the model prisoner before long, if he do not make his escape. As to poor Maria, that was a much more sad meeting, though perhaps less really melancholy, for there can be no doubt that she repents entirely, she speaks of every one as being very good to her, and indeed the old influences only needed revival, they had never quite died out. Even that poor child's name was given for love of Ailie, and the perception of having been used to bring about her master's ruin had always preyed upon her, and further embittered her temper. The barbarity seemed like a dream in connexion with her, but, as she told Ailie, when she once began something came over her, and she could not help striking harder. It reminded me of horrible stories of the Hathertons' usage of animals. Enough of this. I believe the Sisterhood will find a safe shelter for her when her imprisonment is over, and that temptation will not again be put in her way. We should never have trusted her in poor dear Lucy's household. Rose calls for the letters. Good bye, dearest Colin and conqueror. I know all this will cheer you, for it is your own doing. I can't stop saying so, it is such a pleasant sound—Your own,
CHAPTER XXVIII. VANITY OF VANITIES.
"Unfaith in aught is want of faith in all." TENNYSON.
The funeral was very quiet. By Colonel Keith's considerate arrangement the attendants met at Timber End, so that the stillness of the Parsonage was not invaded, a measure the more expedient, as Alick was suffering from a return of his old enemy, intermitting fever, and only was able to leave his room in time to join the procession.
Many were present, for poor Bessie had been a general favourite, and her untimely fate had stirred up feelings that had created her into a saint upon earth; but there was no one whose token of respect she would have more esteemed than Colonel Hammond's, who in all the bustle of the remove to Edinburgh had found time to come to Bishopsworthy to do honour to the daughter of his old commanding officer. A flush of gratitude came over Alick's pale face when he became aware of his colonel's presence, and when the choristers' hymn had pealed low and sweetly over the tranquil meadows, and the mourners had turned away, Alick paused at the Parsonage gate to hold out his hand, and bring in this one guest to hear how near to Bessie's heart the father's Highland regiment had been in all the wanderings of her last moments.
The visit was prolonged for nearly an hour, while recollections of Alick's parents were talked over, and Rachel thought him more cheered and gratified than by any other tribute that had been paid to his sister. He was promised an extension of leave, if it were required on account of Lord Keith's state, though under protest that he would have the aguish fever as long as he remained overlooking the water meadows, and did not put himself under Dr. M'Vicar. Through these meadows Colonel Hammond meant to walk back to the station, and Alick and Rachel conducted him far enough to put him into the right path, and in going back again, they could not but go towards the stile leading to that corner of the churchyard where the sexton had finished his work, and smoothed the sods over that new grave.
Some one was standing at the foot—not the sexton—but a young man bending as with an intolerable load of grief. Rachel saw him first, when Alick was helping her down the step, and her start of dismay made him turn and look round. His brow contracted, and she clutched his arm with an involuntary cry of, "Oh, don't," but he, with a gesture that at once awed and tranquillized her, unclasped her hold and put her back, while he stepped forward.
She could hear every word, though his voice was low and deep with emotion. "Carleton, if I have ever been harsh or unjust in my dealings towards you, I am sorry for it. We have both had the saddest of all lessons. May we both take it as we ought."
He wrung the surprised and unwilling hand, and before the youth, startled and overcome, had recovered enough to attempt a reply, he had come back to Rachel, resumed her arm, and crossed the churchyard, still shivering and trembling with the agitation, and the force he had put on himself. Rachel neither could nor durst speak; she only squeezed his hand, and when he had shut himself up in his own room, she could not help repairing to his uncle, and telling him the whole. Mr. Clare's "God bless you, my boy," had double meaning in it that night.
Not long after, Alick told Rachel of his having met poor young Carleton in the meadows, pretending to occupy himself with his fishing-rod, but too wretched to do anything. And in a short time Mrs. Carleton again called to pour out to Mrs. Keith her warm thanks to the Captain, for having roused her son from his moody, unmanageable despair, and made him consent to accept a situation in a new field of labour, in a spirit of manful duty that he had never evinced before.
This was a grave and subdued, but not wholly mournful, period at Bishopsworthy—a time very precious to Rachel in the retrospect—though there was much to render it anxious. Alick continued to suffer from recurrences of the fever, not very severe in themselves after the first two or three, but laying him prostrate with shivering and headache every third day, and telling heavily on his strength and looks when he called himself well. On these good days he was always at Timber End, where his services were much needed. Lord Keith liked and esteemed him as a sensible prudent young man, and his qualities as a first-rate nurse were of great assistance to the Colonel. Lord Keith's illness was tedious and painful, the necessity of a dangerous operation became increasingly manifest, but the progress towards such a crisis was slow and the pain and discomfort great; the patient never moved beyond his dressing-room, and needed incessant attention to support his spirits and assist his endeavours to occupy himself. It was impossible to leave him for long together, and Colonel Keith was never set at liberty for exercise or rest except when Alick came to his assistance, and fortunately this young brother-in-law was an especial favourite, partly from Lord Keith's esteem for his prudence partly from his experience in this especial species of suffering. At any rate the days of Alick's enforced absence were always times of greater restlessness and uneasiness at Timber End.
Meantime Rachel was constantly thrown with Mr. Clare, supplying Alick's place to him, and living in a round of duties that suited her well, details of parish work, walking with, writing for, and reading to Mr Clare, and reaping much benefit from intercourse with such a mind. Many of her errors had chiefly arisen from the want of some one whose superiority she could feel, and her old presumptions withered up to nothing when she measured her own powers with those of a highly educated man, while all the time he gave her thanks and credit for all she had effected, but such as taught her humility by very force of infection.
Working in earnest at his visitation sermon, she was drawn up into the real principles and bearings of the controversy, and Mr. Clare failed not to give full time and patience to pick out all her difficulties, removing scruples at troubling him, by declaring that it was good for his own purpose to unwind every tangle even if he did not use every thread. It was wonderful how many puzzles were absolutely intangible, not even tangled threads, but a sort of nebulous matter that dispersed itself on investigation. And after all, unwilling as she would have been to own it, a woman's tone of thought is commonly moulded by the masculine intellect, which, under one form or another, becomes the master of her soul. Those opinions, once made her own, may be acted and improved upon, often carried to lengths never thought of by their inspirer, or held with noble constancy and perseverance even when he himself may have fallen from them, but from some living medium they are almost always adopted, and thus, happily for herself, a woman's efforts at scepticism are but blind faith in her chosen leader, or, at the utmost, in the spirit of the age. And Rachel having been more than usually removed from the immediate influence of superior man, had been affected by the more feeble and distant power, a leading that appeared to her the light of her independent mind; but it was not in the nature of things that, from her husband and his uncle, her character should not receive that tincture for which it had so long waited, strong and thorough in proportion to her nature, not rapid in receiving impressions, but steadfast and uncompromising in retaining and working on them when once accepted, a nature that Alick Keith had discerned and valued amid its worst errors far more than mere attractiveness, of which his sister had perhaps made him weary and distrustful. Nor, indeed, under the force of the present influences, was attractiveness wanting, and she suited Alick's peculiarities far better than many a more charming person would have done, and his uncle, knowing her only by her clear mellow voice, her consideration, helpfulness, and desire to think and do rightly, never understood the doubtful amazement now and then expressed in talking of Alick's choice. One great bond between Rachel and Mr. Clare was affection for the little babe, who continued to be Rachel's special charge, and was a great deal dearer to her already than all the seven Temples put together. She studied all the books on infant management that she could obtain, constantly listened for his voice, and filled her letters to her mother with questions and details on his health, and descriptions of his small person. Alick was amused whenever he glanced at his strong-minded woman's correspondence, and now and then used to divert himself with rousing her into emphatic declarations of her preference of this delicate little being to "great, stout, coarse creatures that people call fine children." In fact, Alick's sensitive tenderness towards his sister's motherless child took the form of avoiding the sight of it, and being ironical when it was discussed; but with Mr. Clare, Rachel was sure of sympathy, ever since the afternoon when he had said how the sounds upstairs reminded him of his own little daughter; and sitting under the yew-tree, he had told Rachel all the long stored-up memories of the little life that had been closed a few days after he had first heard himself called papa by the baby lips. He had described all these events calmly, and not without smiles, and had said how his own blindness had made him feel thankful that he had safely laid his little Una on her mother's bosom under the church's shade; but when Rachel spoke of this conversation to her husband, she learnt that it was the first time that he had ever talked of those buried hopes. He had often spoken of his wife, but though always fond of children, few who had not read little Una's name beneath her mother's cross, knew that he was a childless father. And yet it was beautiful to see the pleasure he took in the touch of Bessie's infant, and how skilfully and tenderly he would hold it, so that Rachel in full faith averred that the little Alexander was never so happy as with him. The chief alarms came from Mrs Comyn Menteith, who used to descend on the Rectory like a whirlwind, when the Colonel had politely expelled her from her father's room at Timber End. Possessed with the idea of Rachel's being very dull at Bishopsworthy, she sedulously enlivened her with melancholy prognostics as to the life, limbs, and senses of the young heir, who would never live, poor little darling, even with the utmost care of herself and her nurse, and it was very perverse of papa and the doctors still to keep him from her—poor little darling—not that it mattered, for he was certain not to thrive, wherever he was, and the Gowanbrae family would end with Uncle Colin and the glassblower's daughter; a disaster on which she met with such condolence from Alick (N. B. the next heir) that Rachel was once reduced to the depths of genuine despair by the conviction that his opinion of his nephew's life was equally desponding; and another time was very angry with him for not defending Ermine's gentility. She had not entirely learnt what Alick's assent might mean.
Once, when Mrs. Menteith had been besetting her father with entreaties for the keys of Lady Keith's private possessions, she was decisively silenced, and the next day these same keys were given to Alick, with a request that his wife would as soon as possible look over and take to herself all that had belonged to his sister, except a few heirloom jewels that must return to Scotland. Alick demurred greatly, but the old man would not brook contradiction, and Rachel was very unwillingly despatched upon the mission on one of Alick's days of prostration at home. His absence was the most consoling part of this sad day's work. Any way it could not be otherwise than piteous to dismantle what had been lately so bright and luxurious, and the contrast of the present state of things with that in which these dainty new wedding presents had been brought together, could not but give many a pang; but beside this, there was a more than ordinary impression of "vanity of vanities, all is vanity," very painful to affection that was striving to lose the conviction that it had been a self-indulgent, plausible life. The accumulation of expensive trinkets and small luxuries, was as surprising as perplexing to a person of Rachel's severely simple and practical tastes. It was not only since the marriage; for Bessie had always had at her disposal means rather ample, and had used them not exactly foolishly, but evidently for her own gratification. Everything had some intrinsic worth, and was tasteful or useful, but the multitude was perfectly amazing, and the constant echo in Rachel's ears was, "he heapeth up riches and cannot tell who shall gather them." Lord Keith could hardly have found an executrix for his poor young wife, to whom her properties would have done so little harm. Rachel set many aside for the cousins, and for Mrs. Menteith, others she tried to persuade the Colonel to call Gowanbrae belongings, and failing in this, she hoped through Grace, to smuggle some of them into his Gowanbrae; but when all was done, there was a mass of things that Lord Keith never wished to see again, and that seemed to Rachel to consist of more ornaments than she could ever wear, and more knick-knacks than a captain's wife could ever carry about with her.
She was putting aside the various packets of letters and papers to be looked over more at leisure, when the Colonel knocked at the morning-room door, and told her that his brother would like to see her, when her work was done. "But first," he said, "I must ask you to be kind enough to look over some of these papers, and try to find receipts for some of those bills."
"Here they are," said Rachel, "I was going to look them over at home."
"If you have time to examine them here with me," said Colonel Keith, gently, "I think it might save Alick some pain and vexation."
Rachel was entirely unaware of his meaning, and supposed he only thought of the mere thrilling of the recent wound; but when he sat down and took a long account out of a tradesman's envelope, a chill of dismay came over her, followed by a glow of hope as she recollected a possible explanation: "Have these wretched tradesmen been sending in bills over again at such a time as this?" she exclaimed.
"I should be very glad to find their receipts," returned the Colonel.
They opened the most business-like looking bundles, all of them, though neatly kept, really in hopeless confusion. In vain was the search, and notes came forth which rendered it but too plain that there had been a considerable amount of debt even before the marriage, and that she had made partial payments and promises of clearing all off gradually, but that her new expenses were still growing upon her, and the few payments "on account," since she had been Lady Keith, by no means tallied with the amount of new purchases and orders. No one had suspected her money matters of being in disorder, and Rachel was very slow to comprehend; her simple, country life had made her utterly unaware of the difficulties and ways and means of a young lady of fashion. Even the direct evidence before her eyes would not at first persuade her that it was not "all those wicked tradesmen;" she had always heard that fashionable shops were not to be trusted.
"I am afraid," said Colonel Keith, "that the whole can scarcely be shifted on the tradesmen. I fear poor Bessie was scarcely free from blame in this matter."
"Not paying! Going on in debt! Oh she could not have meant it;" said Rachel, still too much astonished to understand. "Of course one hears of gay, thoughtless people doing such things, but Bessie—who had so much thought and sense. It must be a mistake! Can't you go and speak to the people?"
"It is very sad and painful to make such discoveries," said Colonel Keith; "but I am afraid such things are not uncommon in the set she was too much thrown amongst."
"But she knew so well—she was so superior; and with Alick and her uncle to keep her above them," said Rachel; "I cannot think she could have done such things."
"I could not think, but I see it was so," said Colonel Keith, gravely. "As I am obliged to understand these things, she must have greatly exceeded her means, and have used much cleverness and ingenuity in keeping the tradesmen quiet, and preventing all from coming to light."
"How miserable! I can't fancy living in such a predicament."
"I am much afraid," added the Colonel, looking over the papers, "that it explains the marriage—and then Keith did not allow her as much as she expected."
"Oh, Colonel Keith, don't!" cried Rachel; "it is just the one thing where I could not bear to believe Alick. She was so dear and beautiful, and spoke so rightly."
"To believe Alick!" repeated the Colonel, as Rachel's voice broke down.
"I thought—I ought not to have thought—he was hard upon her—but he knew better," said Rachel, "of course he did not know of all this dreadful business!"
"Assuredly not," said the Colonel, "that is self-evident, but as you say, I am afraid he did know his poor sister's character better than we did, when he came to warn me against the marriage."
"Did he? Oh how much it must have cost him."
"I am afraid I did not make it cost him less. I thought he judged her harshly, and that his illness had made him magnify trifles, but though our interference would have been perfectly useless, he was quite right in his warning. Now that, poor thing, she is no longer here to enchant us with her witcheries, I see that my brother greatly suffered from being kept away from home, and detained in this place, and that she left him far more alone than she ought to have done."
"Yes, Alick thought so, but she had such good reasons, I am sure she believed them herself."
"If she had not believed them, she could not have had such perfect sincerity of manner," said the Colonel; "she must have persuaded at least one half of herself that she was acting for every one's good except her own."
"And Mr. Clare, whom Alick always thought she neglected, never felt it. Alick says he was too unselfish to claim attention."
"I never doubted her for one moment till I came home, on that unhappy day, and found how ill Keith was. I did think then, that considering how much she had seen of Alick while the splinters were working out, she ought to have known better than to talk of sciatica; but she made me quite believe in her extreme anxiety, and that she was only going out because it was necessary for her to take care of you on your first appearance. How bright she looked, and how little I thought I should never see her again!"
"Oh, she meant what she said! She always was kind to me! Most kind!" repeated Rachel; "so considerate about all the dreadful spring—not one word did she say to vex me about the past! I am sure she did go out on that day as much to shelter me as for anything else. I can't bear to think all this—here in this pretty room that she had such pleasure in; where she made me so welcome, after all my disagreeableness and foolishness."
The Colonel could almost have said, "Better such foolishness than such wisdom, such repulsion than such attraction." He was much struck by Rachel's distress, and the absence of all female spite and triumph, made him understand Ermine's defence of her as really large-minded and generous.
"It is a very sad moment to be undeceived," he said; "one would rather have one's faults come to light in one's life than afterwards."
They were simple words, so simple that the terrible truth with which they were connected, did not come upon Rachel at the first moment; but as if to veil her agitation, she drew towards her a book, an ivory-bound Prayer-book, full of illuminations, of Bessie's own doing, and her eye fell upon the awful verse, "So long as thou doest well unto thyself, men will speak good of thee." It was almost more than Rachel could bear, sitting in the midst of the hoards, for which poor Bessie had sold herself. She rose up, with a sob of oppressive grief, and broke out, "Oh! at least it is a comfort that Alick was really the kindest and rightest! Only too right! but you can settle all this without him," she added imploringly; "need he know of this? I can't bear that he should."
"Nor I," said Colonel Keith, "it was the reason that I am glad you are here alone."
"Oh, thank you! No one need ever know," added Rachel.
"I fear my brother must see the accounts, as they have to be paid, but that need not be immediately."
"Is there anything else that is dreadful?" said Rachel, looking at the remaining papers, as if they were a nest of adders. "I don't like to take them home now, if they will grieve Alick."
"You need not be afraid of that packet," said the Colonel; "I see his father's handwriting. They look like his letters from India."
Rachel looked into one or two, and her face lighted up. "Oh!" she exclaimed, "this is enough to make up for all. This is his letter to tell about Alick's wound. Oh how beautifully he speaks of him," and Rachel, with no voice to read, handed the thin paper to her companion, that he might see the full commendation, that had been wrung from the reserved father's heart by his son's extremity.
"You must be prepared to hear that all is over," wrote the father to his daughter; "in fact, I doubt whether he can live till morning, though M'Vicar declares that nothing vital has been touched. Be it as it may, the boy has been in all respects, even more than I dared to wish, and the comfort he has been ever since he came out to me has been unspeakable. We must not grudge him such a soldier's death after his joyous life. But for you, my poor girl, I could only wish the same for myself to-morrow. You will, at least, if you lose a brother's care, have a memory of him, to which to live up. The thought of such a dead brother will be more to you than many a living one can ever be to a sister."
Rachel's heart beat high, and her eyes were full of tears of exultation. And the Colonel was well pleased to compensate for all the pain he had inflicted by giving her all the details he could recollect of her husband's short campaign. They had become excellent friends over their mournful work, and were sorry to have their tete-a-tete interrupted when a message was brought that his Lordship was ready, if Mrs. Keith would be so good as to come into his sitting-room.
She wiped away the tears, and awe-struck and grave, followed the Colonel; a great contrast to Lord Keith's more frequent lady-visitor, as she silently received the polished greeting, its peculiar stateliness of courtesy, enhanced by the feeble state of the shattered old man, unable to rise from his pillowed chair, and his face deeply lined by suffering. He would not let her give him any account of her labours, nor refer any question to him, he only entreated that everything might be taken away, and that he might hear nothing about it. He spoke warmly of Alick's kindness and attention, and showed much solicitude about his indisposition, and at last he inquired for Rachel's "little charge," hoping he was not clamorous or obnoxious to her, or to Mr. Clare's household. Her eager description of his charms provoked a look of interest and a sad smile, followed by a request, that weather and doctor permitting, she would bring the child to be seen for a few minutes. The next day there was an appointment, at which both the Colonel and Alick were wanted, but on the following one, the carriage should be sent to bring her and the little one to Timber End.
The effect of this invitation amused Alick. The first thing he heard in the morning was a decided announcement from Rachel that she must go up to London to procure equipments for the baby to be presented in!
"You know I can't go with you to-day."
"Of course, but I must make him fit to be seen. You know he has been wearing little Una's things all this time, and that will not do out of the nursery."
"A superior woman ought to know that his Lordship will never find out what his son has on."
"Then it is all the more reason that I should not let the poor dear little fellow go about wrapped up in somebody's old shawl!"
"What will you do then—take your maid?"
"Certainly not. I can't have him left."
"Then take him with you?"
"What, Alick, a little unvaccinated baby! Where have you ever lived! I don't see the least reason why I should not go alone."
"You need not begin beating about the world yet, Rachel. How many times did you say you had been in London?"
"Three; once with my father when I was a child, once in the time of the Great Exhibition, and passing through it now with you. But any one of common sense can manage."
"If you will wait till five o'clock I will come with you," said Alick, wearily.
"No, indeed, I had rather not go, than that you should, you are quite tired out enough at the end of the day."
"Then do not go."
"Alick, why will you have no proper feeling for that poor dear child!" said Rachel with tears in her eyes.
If he winced he did not show it. "My proper feeling takes the direction of my wife," he said.
"You don't really mean to forbid me to go," she exclaimed.
"I don't mean it, for I do so, unless you find some one to go with you."
It was the first real collision that had taken place, but Alick's quiet, almost languid tone had an absolute determination in it from the very absence of argument, and Rachel, though extremely annoyed, felt the uselessness of battling the point. She paused for a few moments, then said with an effort, "May I take the housekeeper?"
"Yes, certainly," and then he added some advice about taking a brougham, and thus lightened her heart; so that she presently said humbly,
"Have I been self-willed and overbearing, Alick?"
He laughed. "Not at all; you have persevered just where you ought. I dare say this is all more essential than shows on the surface. And," he added, with a shaken voice, "if you were not myself, Rachel, you know how I should thank you for caring for my poor Bessie's child." He was gone almost as he spoke the words, but Rachel still felt the kiss and the hot tears that had fallen on her face.
Mr. Clare readily consented to spare his housekeeper, but the housekeeper was untoward, she was "busied in her housewife skep," and would not stir. Alick was gone to Timber End, and Rachel was just talking of getting the schoolmaster's wife as an escort, when Mr. Clare said—
"Pray are you above accepting my services?"
"You! Oh, uncle; thank you, but—"
"What were your orders? Anybody with you, was it not? I flatter myself that I have some body, at least."
"If Alick will not think I ought not!"
"The boy will not presume to object to what I do with you."
"I do wish it very much," said candid Rachel.
"Of course you do, my dear. Alick is not cured of a young man's notion that babies are a sort of puppies. He is quite right not to let you run about London by yourself, but he will be quite satisfied if you find eyes and I find discretion."
"But is it not very troublesome to you?"
"It is a capital lark!" said Mr. Clare, with a zest that only the slang word could imply, removing all Rachel's scruples, and in effect Mr. Clare did enjoy the spice of adventure in a most amusing way. He knew perfectly well how to manage, laid out the plan of operations, gave orders to the driver, went into all the shops, and was an effective assistant in the choice of material and even of embroidery. His touch and ear seemed to do more for him than many men's eyes do for them; he heard odd scraps of conversation and retailed them with so much character; he had such pleasant colloquies with all in whose way he fell, and so thoroughly enjoyed the flow and babble of the full stream of life, that Rachel marvelled that the seclusion of his parsonage was bearable to him. He took her to lunch with an old friend, a lady who had devoted herself to the care of poor girls to be trained as servants, and Rachel had the first real sight of one of the many great and good works set on foot by personal and direct labour.
"If I had been sensible, I might have come to something like this!" she said.
"Do you wish to undo these last three months?"
"No; I am not fit to be anything but an ordinary married woman, with an Alick to take care of me; but I am glad some people can be what I meant to be."
"And you need not regret not being useful now," said Mr. Clare. "Where should any of us be without you?"
It had not occurred to Rachel, but she was certainly of far more positive use in the world at the present moment than ever she had bean in her most assuming maiden days.
Little Alexander was arrayed in all that could enhance his baby dignity, and Rachel was more than ever resolved to assert his superiority over "great frightful fine children," resenting vehemently an innocent observation from Alick, that the small features and white skin promised sandiness of hair. Perhaps Alick delighted in saying such things for the sake of proving the "very womanhood" of his Clever Woman. Rachel hung back, afraid of the presentation, and would have sent her maid into the room with the child if Colonel Keith had not taken her in himself. Even yet she was not dexterous in handling the baby, her hands were both occupied, and her attention absorbed, and she could not speak, she felt it so mournful to show this frail motherless creature to a father more like its grandfather, and already almost on the verge of the grave. She came up to Lord Keith, and held the child to him in silence. He said, "Thank you," and kissed not only the little one, but her own brow, and she kept the tears back with difficulty.
Colonel Keith gave her a chair and footstool, and she sat with the baby on her lap, while very few words were spoken. It was the Colonel who asked her to take off the hood that hid the head and brow, and who chiefly hazarded opinions as to likeness and colour of eyes. Lord Keith looked earnestly and sadly, but hardly made any observation, except that it looked healthier than he had been led to expect. He was sure it owed much to Mrs. Keith's great care and kindness.
Rachel feared he would not be able to part with his little son, and began to mention the arrangements she had contemplated in case he wished to keep the child at Timber End. On this, Lord Keith asked with some anxiety, if its presence were inconvenient to Mr. Clare; and being assured of the contrary, said, "Then while you are so kind as to watch over him, I much prefer that things should remain in their present state, than to bring him to a house like this. You do not object?"
"Oh, no; I am so glad. I was only dreading the losing him. I thought Mrs. Menteith wished for him when he is old enough to travel."
"Colin!" said Lord Keith, looking up sharply, "will nothing make the Menteiths understand that I would rather put out the child to nurse in a Highland hut than in that Babel of a nursery of theirs?"
Colin smiled and said, "Isabel does not easily accept an answer she dislikes."
"But remember, both of you," continued Lord Keith, "that happen what may, this poor child is not to be in her charge. I've seen enough of her children left alone in perambulators in the sun. You will be in Edinburgh?" he added, turning to Rachel.
"Yes, when Alick's leave ends."
"I shall return thither when this matter is over, I know I shall be better at home in Scotland, and if I winter in Edinburgh, may be we could make some arrangement for his being still under your eye."
Rachel went home more elevated than she had been for months past.
CHAPTER XXIX. AT LAST.
"I bid thee hail, not as in former days, Not as my chosen only, but my bride, My very bride, coming to make my house A glorious temple." A. H. HALLAM.
"Timber End, Littleworthy, September 10th.
"Dear Miss Williams,—I must begin by entreating your forgiveness for addressing you in a manner for which perhaps you may be unprepared; but I trust you have always been aware, that any objections that I may have offered to my brother Colin's attachment to yourself have never been personal, or owing to anything but an unfortunate complication of circumstances. These difficulties are, as no doubt he will explain to you, in great measure removed by the present condition of my family, which will enable me to make such settlements as I could wish in the ease of one so nearly connected with me; so that I am enabled to entreat of you at length to reward the persevering constancy so well deserved. I have a further, and a personal cause for wishing that the event should not be deferred, as regard for my feelings might have led you to propose. You are aware of the present state of my health, and that it has become expedient to make immediate arrangements for the future guardianship of my little boy. His uncles are of course his natural guardians, and I have unbounded confidence in both; but Alexander Keith's profession renders it probable that he may not always be at hand, and I am therefore desirous of being able to nominate yourself, together with my brother, among the personal guardians. Indeed, I understand from Alexander Keith, that such was the express wish of his sister. I mention this as an additional motive to induce you to consent. For my own part, even without so stringent a cause, all that I have ever seen or known of yourself would inspire me with the desire that you should take a mother's place towards my son. But you must be aware that such an appointment could only be made when you are already one of the family, and this it is that leads me to entreat you to overlook any appearance of precipitancy on my brother's part, and return a favourable reply to the request, which with my complete sanction, he is about to address to you.
"Yes, Ermine Williams, forgive all that is past, and feel for an old, it may be, a dying man, and for a motherless infant. There is much to forget, but I trust to your overcoming any scruples, and giving me all the comfort in your power, in thinking of the poor child who has come into the world under such melancholy circumstances.
"Yours most truly,
"Keith of Gowanbrae"
"Poor Keith, he has given me his letter open, his real anxiety has been too much at last for his dignity; and now, my Ermine, what do you say to his entreaty? The state of the case is this. How soon this abscess may be ready for the operation is still uncertain, the surgeons think it will be in about three weeks, and in this interval he wishes to complete all his arrangements. In plain English, his strongest desire is to secure the poor little boy from falling into Menteith's hands. Now, mine is a precarious life, and Alick and Rachel may of course be at the ends of the earth, so the point is that you shall be 'one of the family,' before the will is signed. Alick's leave has been extended to the 1st of October, no more is possible, and he undertakes to nurse poor Keith for a fortnight from to-morrow, if you will consent to fulfil this same request within that time. After the 1st, I should have to leave you, but as soon as Keith is well enough to bear the journey, he wishes to return to Edinburgh, where he would be kindly attended to by Alick and Rachel all the winter. There, Ermine, your victory is come, your consent has been entreated at last by my brother, not for my sake, but as a personal favour to himself, because there is no woman in the world of whom he thinks so highly. For myself I say little. I grieve that you should be thus hurried and fluttered, and if Ailie thinks it would harm you, she must telegraph back to me not to come down, and I will try to teach myself patience by preaching it to Keith, but otherwise you will see me by four o'clock to-morrow. Every time I hear Rachel's name, I think it ought to have been yours, and surely in this fourteenth year, lesser objections may give way. But persuasions are out of the question, you must be entirely led by your own feeling. If I could have seen you in July, this should not have come so suddenly at last. "Yours, more than ever, decide as you may,
"Colin A Keith.
"P. S.—I am afraid Rose would hardly answer this purpose equally well."
Colonel Keith followed his letter at four o'clock, and entering his own study, found it in a cloud of smoke, in the midst of which he dimly discerned a long beard and thin visage absorbed in calculation.
"Edward! How is Ermine?"
"Oh?" (inquiringly) "Keith!" (as taken by surprise) "ah! you were to come home to-day. How are you?"
"How is she? Has she had my letter?"
"What letter? You write every day, I thought."
"The letter of yesterday. Have you heard nothing of it?"
"Not that I know of. Look here, Keith, I told you I was sure the platinum—"
"Your brain is becoming platinum. I must go," and the chemist remained with merely a general impression of having been interrupted.
Next the Colonel met Rose, watching at his own gate, and this time his answer was more explicit.
"Yes, Aunt Ermine said you were coming, and that I might meet you, but that I must let you come in alone, for she had not seen you so long, that she wanted you all to herself."
"And how is she; how has she been?"
"She is well now," said Rose, in the grave, grown-up way she always assumed when speaking of her aunt's health; "but she has been having a good deal of her nervous headache this summer, and Lady Temple wanted her to see Mr. Frampton, but Aunt Ailie said it was only excitement and wear of spirits. Oh, I am glad you have come back! We have so wearied after you."
Nevertheless Rose duteously loosed the hand to which she had been clinging till they came to the door; and as Colin Keith opened it, again he was met by the welcoming glances of the bright eyes. This time he did not pause till he was close to her, and kneeling on one knee beside her, he put his arm round her, and held her hands in his.
The first words that passed were, "You had the letters?"
"Colin, Colin, my one prayer has been, 'Make Thy way plain before my face.'"
"And now it is?"
"The suspicion is gone; the displeasure is gone; the doubts are gone; and now there is nothing—nothing but the lameness and the poverty; and if you like the old cinder, Colin, that is your concern;" and she hid her face, with a sort of sobbing laugh.
"And even the haste; you consent to that?"
"I don't feel it like haste," she said, looking up with a smile, and then crimsoning.
"And Ailie gives leave, and thinks the hurry will not harm you?"
"Ailie! O Colin, did you think I could tell any one of your letter, before you had had your answer?"
"Then Edward is not so moonstruck as I thought him! And when shall it be, dearest? Give me as much time as you can. I must go back this day fortnight."
"I suppose your expectations are not high in the matter of finery," said Ermine, with a certain archness of voice.
"Those eyes are all the finery I ever see."
"Then if you will not be scandalized at my natural Sunday dress, I don't see why this day week should not do as well as any other time."
"Ermine, you are the only woman I ever met totally free from nonsense."
"Take care, it is very unfeminine and disagreeable to be devoid of nonsense."
"Very, and therefore you are talking it now! Ermine, how shall I thank you? Not only for the sake of the ease of mind to my poor brother; but in the scenes we are going through, a drop of happiness is wanted as a stimulant. When I looked at the young couple at Bishopsworthy, I often felt as if another half-year of suspense was more than I could bear, and that I must ask you to help me through with at least a definite hope."
"Ah! you have gone through a great deal I am sure it has been a time of great trouble."
"Indeed it has. The suffering has become unceasing and often most severe, and there is grievous depression of spirits; I could not have left him even for a day, if he had not been so fervently bent on this."
"Is he feeling his loss more acutely than at first?"
"Not so much that, as for the poor little boy, who is a heavy burthen on his mind. He has lived in such a state of shrewd distrust that he has no power of confidence, and his complications for making all the boy's guardians check one another till we come to a dead lock, and to make provision for Isabel out of Menteith's reach, are enough to distract the brain of a man in health."
"Is he fond of the child?"
"It is an oppressive care to him, and he only once has made up his mind to see it, though it is never off his mind, and it is very curious how from the first he has been resolved on your taking charge of it. It is the most real testimony he could give you."
"It is very comfortable not to be brought in like an enemy in spite of him, as even a year ago I could have been proud to do."
"And I to have brought you," he answered, "but it is far better as it is. He is very cordial, and wants to give up the Auchinvar estate to me; indeed, he told me that he always meant me to have it as soon as I had washed my hands of you—you wicked syren—but I think you will agree with me that he had better leave it to his daughter Mary, who has nothing. We never reckoned on it."
"Nor on anything else," said Ermine, smiling.
"You have never heard my ways and means," he said, "and as a prudent woman you ought, you know. See," taking out his tablets, "here is my calculation."
"On the staff in India there were good opportunities of saving; then out of that sum I bought the house, and with my half-pay, our income will be very fair, and there would be a pension afterwards for you. This seems to me all we can reasonably want."
"Unless I became like 'die Ilsebill' in the German tale. After four years of living from hand to mouth, this will be like untold gold. To wish to be above strict economy in wheeled chairs has seemed like perilous discontent in Rose and me."
"I have ventured on the extravagance of taking the ponies and little carriage off my brother's hands, it is low enough for you, and I shall teach Rose to ride one of the ponies with me."
"The dear little Rose! But, Colin, there is a dreadful whisper about her going with her father, and Ailie too! You see now his character is cleared, he has been offered a really lucrative post, so that he could have them with him."
"Does he wish it?"
"I dare not ask. I must be passive or I shall be selfish. You are all my world, and Edward has no one. Make them settle it without me. Talk of something else! Tell me how your brother is to be taken care of."
"There cannot be a better nurse than Alick Keith; and Ferguson, the agent, is there, getting directions from Keith whenever he can bear it. I am best out of the way of all that. I have said once for all that I will do anything for them except live at Gowanbrae, and I am sick of demonstrating that the poor child's existence is the greatest possible relief to me; and I hope now not to go back till the whole is settled and done with."
"You look regularly worn out with the discussions!"
"It was an endless business! The only refreshment was in now and then getting over to Bishopsworthy."
"What? to Rachel?" said Ermine archly.
"Rachel is showing to great advantage. I did not think it was in her to be so devoted to the child, and it is beautiful to see her and Mr. Clare together."
"There's a triumph," said Ermine, smiling. "Do you grant that the happy medium is reached, that Alick should learn to open his eyes and Rachel to shut hers?"
"Well! Her eyes are better, but he, poor lad, has been in no spirits to open his very wide. The loss of his sister went very deep, and those aguish attacks, though they become much slighter, make him look wretchedly ill. I should have doubted about leaving him in charge in his present state, but that he was urgent on me, and he is spared all the night nursing. Any way, I must not leave him longer than I can help. I may have one week with you at home—at our home, Ermine."
"And let us make the most of that," said Ermine, quickly.
Meanwhile Alison, sore and sick at heart, wandered on the esplanade, foreboding that the blow was coming that she ought to rejoice at, if her love could only be more unselfish. At last the Colonel joined her, and, as usual, his tone of consideration cheered and supported her when in actual conference with him, and as he explained his plans, he added that he hoped there would be scarcely any interruption to her intercourse with her sister.
"You know," she said abruptly, "that we could go to Ekaterinburg."
"And what is your feeling about it? Remember, Ailie, that I am your brother too." And as she hesitated, "your feelings—no doubt you are in many minds!"
"Ah, yes; I never settled anything without Ermine, and she will not help me now. And she has been so worn with the excitement and anxiety of all this long detention of yours, that I don't dare to say a word that could prey on her."
"In fact, you would chiefly be decided by Edward's own wishes."
"If I were sure of them," sighed poor Alison; "but he lives on experiments, and can hardly detach himself from them even to attend to Ermine herself. I don't know whether we should be a comfort or a burthen, and he would be afraid to hurt our feelings by telling the truth. I have been longing to consult you who have seen him at that place in Russia."
"And indeed, Ailie, he is so wedded to smoke and calculations, and so averse to this sublunary world, that though your being with him might be beneficial, still I greatly question whether the risk of carrying poor little Rose to so remote a place in such a climate, would be desirable. If he were pining to have a home made for him, it would be worth doing; as it is, the sacrifice would be disproportioned."
"It would be no sacrifice if he only wanted us."
"Where you are wanted is here. Ermine wants you. I want you. The Temples want you."
"Now, Colin, tell me truly. Edward feels as I do, and Dr. Long spoke seriously of it. Will not my present position do you and Ermine harm among your friends?"
"With no friend we wish to make or keep!"
"If I do remain," continued Alison, "it must be as I am. I would not live upon you, even if you asked me, which you have too much sense to do; and though dear Lady Temple is everything to me, and wants me to forget that I am her governess, that would be a mere shuffle, but if it is best for you that I should give it up, and go out, say so at once."
"Best for me to have eight Temples thrown on my hands, all in despair! To have you at Myrtlewood is an infinite relief to me, both on their account and Ermine's. You should not suspect a penniless Scotsman of such airs, Ailie."
"Not you, Colin, but your family."
"Isabel Menteith thinks a glass-blower was your father, and Mauleverer your brother, so yours is by far the most respectable profession. No, indeed, my family might be thankful to have any one in it who could do as you have done."
Alison's scruples were thus disposed of, and when Edward's brain cleared itself from platinum, he showed himself satisfied with the decision, though he insisted on henceforth sending home a sum sufficient for his daughter's expenses, and once said something that could be construed into a hope of spending a quiet old age with her and his sister; but at present he was manifestly out of his element, and was bent on returning to Ekaterinburg immediately after the marriage.
His presence was but a qualified pleasure. Naturally shy and absent, his broken spirits and removal from domestic life, and from society, had exaggerated his peculiarities; and under the pressure of misfortune, caused in a great measure by his own negligence, he had completely given way, without a particle of his sister's patience or buoyancy, and had merely striven to drown his troubles in engrossing problems of his favourite pursuit, till the habit of abstraction had become too confirmed to be shaken off. When the blot on his name was removed, he was indeed sensible that he was no longer an exile, but he could not resume his old standing, friendships rudely severed could not be re-united; his absorption had grown by indulgence; old interests had passed away; needful conformity to social habits was irksome, and even his foreign manner and appearance testified to his entire unfitness for English life.
Tibbie was in constant dread of his burning the house down, so incalculable and preposterous were his hours, and the Colonel, longing to render the house a perfect shrine for his bride, found it hard to tolerate the fumes with which her brother saturated it. If he had been sure that opium formed no portion of Edward's solace, his counsel to Alison would have been less decisive. To poor little Rose, her father was an abiding perplexity and distress; she wanted to love him, and felt it absolute naughtiness to be constantly disappointed by his insensibility to her approaches, or else repelled and disgusted by that vice of the Russian sheep. And a vague hint of being transported to the Ural mountains, away from Aunt Ermine, had haunted her of late more dreadfully than even the lions of old; so that the relief was ineffable when her dear Colonel confided to her that she was to be his niece and Aunt Ermine's handmaid, sent her to consult with Tibbie on her new apartment, and invited Augustus to the most eligible hole in the garden. The grotto that Rose, Conrade, and Francis proceeded to erect with pebbles and shells, was likely to prove as alarming to that respectable reptile as a model cottage to an Irish peasant.
Ermine had dropped all scruples about Rose's intercourse with other children, and the feeling that she might associate with them on equal terms, perhaps, was the most complete assurance of Edward's restoration. She was glad that companionship should render the little maiden more active and childlike, for Edward's abstraction had made her believe that there might be danger in indulging the dreaminess of the imaginative child.
No one welcomed the removal of these restraints more warmly than Lady Temple. She was perhaps the happiest of the happy, for with her there was no drawback, no sorrow, no parting to fear. Her first impulse, when Colonel Keith came to tell her his plans, was to seize on hat and shawl, and rush down to Mackarel Lane to kiss Ermine with all her heart, and tell her that "it was the most delightful thing of her to have consented at last, for nobody deserved so well to be happy as that dear Colonel;" and then she clung to Alison, declaring that now she should have her all to herself, and if she would only come to Myrtlewood, she would do her very best to make her comfortable there, and it should be her home—her home always.
"In fact," said Ermine, afterwards to the Colonel, "when you go to Avoncester, I think you may as well get a licence for the wedding of Alison Williams and Fanny Temple at the same time. There has been quite a courtship on the lady's part."
The courtship had been the more ardent from Fanny's alarm lest the brother should deprive her of Alison; and when she found her fears groundless, she thanked him with such fervour, and talked so eagerly of his sister's excellences that she roused him into a lucid interval, in which he told Colonel Keith that Lady Temple might give him an idea of the style of woman that Lucy had been. Indeed, Colin began to think that it was as well that he was so well wrapped up in smoke and chemistry, otherwise another might have been added to the list of Lady Temple's hopeless adorers. The person least satisfied was Tibbie, who could not get over the speediness of the marriage, nor forgive the injury to Miss Williams, "of bringing her hame like any pleughman's wife, wantin' a honeymoon trip, forbye providin' hersel' with weddin' braws conformable. Gin folk tak' sic daft notions aff the English, they'd be mair wise like to bide at hame, an' that's my way o' thinkin'."
Crusty as she was, there was no danger of her not giving her warmest welcome, and thus the morning came. Tibbie had donned her cap, with white satin ribbons, and made of lace once belonging to the only heiress who had ever brought wealth to the Keiths. Edward Williams, all his goods packed up, had gone to join his sisters, and the Colonel, only perceptibly differing from his daily aspect in having a hat free from crape, was opening all the windows in hopes that a thorough draft would remove the last of the tobacco, when the letters were brought in, and among them one of the black bordered bulletins from Littleworthy, which ordinarily arrived by the second post. It was a hurried note, evidently dashed off to catch the morning mail.
My Dear Colonel,—Alick tells me to write in haste to catch the morning post, and beg you to telegraph the instant your wedding is over. The doctors see cause to hasten their measures, but your brother will have nothing done till the will is signed. He and Alick both desire you will not come, but it is getting to be far too much for Alick. I would tell you more if there were time before the post goes. Love to dear Ermine. Very sincerely yours, R. KEITH.
There was so shocked and startled a look on Colin's face, that Tibbie believed that his brother must be dead, and when in a few almost inaudible words he told her that he must start for Bishopsworthy by the afternoon train, she fairly began to scold, partly by way of working off the irritation left by her alarm. "The lad's clean demented! Heard ye ever the like, to rin awa' frae his new-made wife afore the blessin's been weel spoke; an' a' for the whimsie of that daft English lassie that made siccan a piece of work wi' her cantrips."
"I am afraid she is right now," said the Colonel, "and my brother must not be left any longer."
"Hout awa, Maister Colin, his lordship has come between you and your luve oft enough already, without partin' ye at the very church door. Ye would na have the English cast up to us, that one of your name did na ken better what was fittin by his bride!"
"My bride must be the judge, Tibbie. You shall see whether she bids me stay," said Colin, a little restored by his amusement at her anxiety for his honour among the English. "Now desire Smith to meet me at the church door, and ride at once from thence to Avoncester; and get your face ready to give a cheerful welcome, Tibbie. Let her have that, at least, whatever may come after."
Tibbie looked after him, and shook her head, understanding from her ain laddie's pallid check, and resolute lip, nay, in the very sound of his footfall, how sore was his trial, and with one-sided compassion she muttered, "Telegrafted awa on his vera weddin' day. His Lordship'll be the death o' them baith before he's done."
As it was in every way desirable that the wedding should be unexpected by Avonmonth in general, it was to take place at the close of the ordinary morning service, and Ermine in her usual seat within the vestry, was screened from knowing how late was Colin's entrance, or seeing the determined composure that would to her eyes have betrayed how much shaken he was. He was completely himself again by the time the congregation dispersed, leaving only Grace Curtis, Lady Temple, and the little best man, Conrade, a goodly sight in his grey suit and scarlet hose. Then came the slow movement from the vestry, the only really bridal-looking figure being Rose in white muslin and white ribbons; walking timidly and somewhat in awe beside her younger aunt; while her father upheld and guided the elder. Both were in quiet, soft, dark dresses, and straw bonnets, but over hers Ermine wore the small though exquisite Brussels lace veil that had first appeared at her mother's wedding; and thankful joy and peaceful awe looked so lovely on her noble brow, deep, soft dark eyes, and the more finely moulded, because somewhat worn, features; and so beauteously deepened was the carnation on her cheek, that Mr. Mitchell ever after maintained that he had never married any one to compare with that thirty-three years' old bride upon crutches, and, as he reported to his wife, in no dress at all.
Her brother, who supported her all the time she stood, was infinitely more nervous than she was. Her native grace and dignity, and absence of all false shame entirely covered her helplessness, and in her earnestness, she had no room for confusion; her only quivering of voice was caught for one moment from the tremulous intensity of feeling that Colin Keith could not wholly keep from thrilling in his tones, as he at last proclaimed his right to love and to cherish her for whom he had so long persevered.
Unobserved, he filled up the half-written despatch with the same pen with which he signed the register, and sent Conrade to the door with it to his already mounted messenger. Then assuming Edward's place as Ermine's supporter, he led her to the door, seated her in her wheeled chair, and silently handing Rachel's note as his explanation to Alison, he turned away, and walked alone by Ermine's side to his own house. Still silent, he took her into the bright drawing-room he had so long planned for her, and seated her in her own peculiar chair. Then his first words were, "Thank God for this!"
She knew his face. "Colin, your brother is worse?" He bent his head, he could not speak.
"And you have to go to him! This very day?"
"Ermine, you must decide. You are at last my first duty!"
"That means that you know you ought to go. Tell me what it is."
He told the substance of the note, ending with, "If you could come with me!"
"I would if I should not be a tie and hindrance. No, I must not do that; but here I am, Colin, here I am. And it is all true—it has all come right at last! All we waited for. Nothing has ever been like this."
She was the stronger. Tears, as much of loving thankfulness as of overflowing disappointment, rushed into his eyes at such a fulfilment of the purpose that he had carried with him by sea and land, in battle and sickness, through all the years of his manhood. And withal her one thought was to infuse in its strongest measure the drop of happiness that was to sustain him through the scenes that awaited him, to make him feel her indeed his wife, and to brighten him with the sunbeam face that she knew had power to cheer him. Rallying her playfulness, she took off her bonnet, and said as she settled her hair, "There, that is being at home! Take my shawl, yes, and these white gloves, and put them out of sight, that I may not feel like a visitor, and that you may see how I shall look when you come back. Do you know, I think your being out of the way will be rather a gain, for there will be a tremendous feminine bustle with the fitting of our possessions."
Her smile awoke a responsive look, and she began to gaze round and admire, feeling it safest to skim on the surface; and he could not but be gratified by her appreciation of the pains spent upon this, her especial home. He had recovered himself again by the time these few sentences had passed; they discussed the few needful arrangements required by his departure, and Tibbie presently found them so cheerful that she was quite scandalized, and when Ermine held out her hands, saying, "What Tibbie, won't you come and kiss me, and wish me joy?" she exclaimed—
"Wish ye joy! It's like me to wish ye joy an yer lad hurled awa frae yer side i' the blink o' an ee, by thae wild telegrams. I dinna see what joy's to come o't; it's clean again the Scripture!"
"I told you I had left it to her to decide, Tibbie," said the Colonel.
"Weel, an what wad ye hae the puir leddy say? She kens what sorts ye, when the head of yer name is sick an lyin' among thae English loons that hae brocht him to siccan a pass."
"Right, Tibbie," exclaimed Ermine, greatly amused at the unexpected turn, purely for the sake of putting Maister Colin in the wrong. "If a gentleman won't be content without a bride who can't walk, he must take the consequence, and take his wedding trip by himself! It is my belief, Tibbie, as I have just been telling him, that you and I shall get the house in all the better order for having him off our hands, just at first," she added, with a look of intelligence.
"Deed, an maybe we shall," responded Tibbie, with profound satisfaction. "He was aye a camsteary child when there was any wark on hand."
Colin could not help laughing, and when once this had been effected, Ermine felt that his depression had been sufficiently met, and that she might venture on deeper, and more serious sympathy, befitting the chastened, thankful feelings with which they hailed the crowning of their youthful love, the fulfilment of the hopes and prayers that the one had persisted in through doubt and change, the other had striven to resign into the All-wise Hands.
They had an early meal together, chiefly for the sake of his wheeling her to the head of his table, and "seeing how she looked there," and then the inexorable hour was come, and he left her, with the echo of her last words in his ear, "Goodbye, Colin, stay as long as you ought. It will make the meeting all the sweeter, and you have your wife to some back to now. Give a sister's love to your brother, and thanks for having spared you," and his last look at the door was answered with her sunshiny smile.
But when, a few minutes after, Edward came up with Alison for his farewell, they found her lying back in her chair, half fainting, and her startled look told almost too plainly that she had not thought of her brother. "Never mind," said Edward, affectionately, as much to console Alison as Ermine for this oblivion; "of course it must be so, and I don't deserve otherwise. Nothing brought me home but Colin Keith's telling me that he saw you would not have him till my character was cleared up; and now he has repaired so much of the evil I did you, all I can do is to work to make it up to you in other ways. Goodbye, Ermine, I leave you all in much better hands than mine ever were, you are right enough in feeling that a week of his absence outweighs a year of mine. Bless you for all that you and he have done for my child. She, at least, is a comfort to you."
Ermine's powers were absolutely exhausted; she could only answer him by embraces and tears; and all the rest of the day she was, to use her own expression, "good for nothing but to be let alone." Nor, though she exerted herself that she might with truth write that she was well and happy, was she good for much more on the next, and her jealous guardians allowed her to see no one but soft, fondling Lady Temple, who insisted on a relationship (through Rachel), and whose tender pensive quietness could not fail to be refreshment to the strained spirits, and wearied physical powers, and who better than anybody could talk of the Colonel, nay, who could understand, and even help Ermine herself to understand, that these ever-welling tears came from a source by no means akin to grief or repining.
The whole aspect of the rooms was full of tokens of his love and thought for her. The ground-floor had been altered for her accommodation, the furniture chosen in accordance with her known tastes or with old memories, all undemonstratively prepared while yet she had not decided on her consent. And what touched her above all, was the collection of treasures that he had year by year gathered together for her throughout the weary waiting, purchases at which Lady Temple remembered her mother's banter, with his quiet evasions of explanation. No wonder Ermine laid her head on her hand, and could not retain her tears, as she recalled the white, dismayed face of the youth, who had printed that one sad earliest kiss on her brow, as she lay fire-scathed and apparently dying; and who had cherished the dream unbroken and unwaveringly, had denied himself consistently, had garnered up those choice tokens when ignorant over whether she still lived; had relied on her trust, and come back, heart-whole, to claim and win her, undaunted by her crippled state, her poverty, and her brother's blotted name. "How can such love ever be met? Why am I favoured beyond all I could have dared to image to myself?" she thought, and wept again; because, as she murmured to Fanny, "I do thank God for it with all my heart, and I do long to tell him all. I don't think my married life ought to begin by being sillier than ever I was before, but I can't help it."
"And I do love you so much the better for it," said Fanny; a better companion to-day than the grave, strong Alison, who would have been kind, but would have had to suppress some marvel at the break-down, and some resentment that Edward had no greater share in it.
The morning's post brought her the first letter from her husband, and in the midst of all her anxiety as to the contents, she could not but linger a moment on the aspect of the Honourable Mrs. Colin Keith in his handwriting; there was a carefulness in the penmanship that assured her that, let him have to tell her what he would, the very inditing of that address had been enjoyment to him. That the border was black told nothing, but the intelligence was such as she had been fully prepared for. Colin had arrived to find the surgeon's work over, but the patient fast sinking. Even his recognition of his brother had been uncertain, and within twenty-four hours of the morning that had given Colin a home of his own, the last remnant of the home circle of his childhood had passed from him.
Still Ermine had to continue a widowed bride for full a fortnight, whilst the funeral and subsequent arrangements necessitated Colin's presence in Scotland. It was on a crisp, beautiful October evening that Rose, her chestnut hair flying about her brow, stood, lighted up by the sunbeams in the porch, with upraised face and outstretched hands, and as the Colonel bent down to receive her joyous embrace, said, "Aunt Ermine gave me leave to bring you to the door. Then I am going to Myrtlewood till bed-time. And after that I shall always have you."
The open door showed Ermine, too tremulous to trust to her crutch, but leaning forward, her eyes liquid with tears of thankfulness. The patient spirits had reached their home and haven, the earthly haven of loving hearts, the likeness of the heavenly haven, and as her head leant, at last, upon his shoulder, and his guardian arm encircled her, there was such a sense of rest and calm that even the utterance of their inward thanksgiving, or of a word of tenderness would have jarred upon them. It was not till a knock and message at the door interrupted them, that they could break the blessed stillness.
"And there you are, my Ermine!" said Colin, standing on the hearth-rug, and surveying her with satisfied eyes. "You are a queenly looking dame in your black draperies, and you look really well, much better than Rachel led me to expect."
"Ah! when she was here I had no fixed day to look forward to. And receiving our poor little orphan baby was not exactly like receiving his uncle, though Rachel seemed to think it ought to make up for anything."
"She was thoroughly softened by that child! It was a spirited thing her bringing him down here on the Monday when we started for Scotland, and then coming all the way alone with her maid. I did not think Alick would have consented, but he said she would always be the happier for having deposited her charge in your hands."
"It was a great wrench to her. I felt it like robbery when she put the little fellow down on my lap and knelt over him, not able to get herself away, but saying that she was not fit to have him; she could not bear it if she made him hate her as Conrade did! I am glad she has had his first smile, she deserves it."
"Is Tibbie in charity with him?"
"Oh, more than in charity! She did not take the first announcement of his coming very amiably; but when I told her she was to reign in the nursery, and take care the poor little chief know the sound of a Scots' tongue, she began to thaw; and when he came into the house, pity or loyalty, or both, flamed up hotly, and have quite relieved me; for at first she made a baby of me, and was a perfect dragon of jealousy at poor Ailie's doing anything for me. It was a rich scene when Rachel began giving her directions out of 'Hints for the Management of Infants,' just in the old voice, and Tibbie swept round indignantly, 'His Lordship, Lord Keith of Gowanbrae, suld hae the best tendance she could gie him. She did na lippen to thae English buiks, as though she couldna rear a wean without bulk learning.' Poor Rachel nearly cried, and was not half comforted by my promising to study the book as much as she pleased."
"It will never do to interfere with Tibbie, and I own I am much of her opinion, I had rather trust to her than to Rachel, or the book!"
"Well, the more Rachel talked book, the more amiable surprise passed between her mother and Lady Temple that the poor little follow should have lived at all, and I believe they were very angry with me for thinking her views very sensible. Lady Temple is so happy with him. She says it is so melancholy to have a house without a baby, that she comes in twice or three times a day to console herself with this one."
"Did you not tell me that she and the Curtises spent the evening with you?"
"Yes, it was rather shocking to receive them without you, but it was the only way of being altogether on Rachel's one evening here; and it was very amusing, Mrs. Curtis so happy with her daughter looking well and bright, and Rachel with so much to tell about Bishopsworthy, till at last Grace, in her sly odd way, said she thought dear Alexander had even taught Rachel curatolatry; whereupon Rachel fired up at such an idea being named in connexion with Mr. Clare, then came suddenly, and very prettily, down, and added, 'Living with Alick and Mr. Clare has taught me what nonsense I talked in those days.'"
"Well done, Rachel! It proves what Alick always said, that her great characteristic is candour!"
"I hope she was not knocked up by the long night journey all at one stretch. Mrs. Curtis was very uneasy about it, but nothing would move her; she owned that Alick did not expect her, for she had taken care he should not object, by saying nothing of her intention, but she was sure he would be ill on Wednesday morning, and then Mrs. Curtis not only gave in directly, but all we married women turned upon poor Grace for hinting that Alick might prefer a day's solitary illness to her being over-tired."
"She was extremely welcome! Alick was quite done for by all he had gone through; he was miserably ill, and I hardly knew what to do with him, and he mended from the moment his face lightened up at the sight of her."
"There's the use of strength of mind! How is Alick?"
"Getting better under M'Vicar and Edinburgh winds. It was hard on him to have borne the brunt of all the nursing that terrible last week, and in fact I never knew how much he was going through rather than summon me. His sauntering manner always conceals how much he is doing, and poor Keith was so fond of him, and liked his care so much that almost the whole fell upon him at last. And I believe he said more that was good for Keith, and brought in Mr. Clare more than perhaps I should ever have been able to do. So though I must regret having been away, it may have been the best thing."
"And it was by your brother's earnest wish," said Ermine; "it was not as if you had stayed away for your own pleasure."
"No! Poor Keith repeatedly said he could not die in peace till he had secured our having the sole charge of his son. It was a strong instinct that conquered inveterate prejudice! Did I tell you about the will?"
"You said I should hear particulars when you came."
"The personal guardianship is left to us first, then to Alick and Rachel, with L300 a year for the expenses. Then we have Auchinvar. The estate is charged with an equivalent settlement upon Mary, a better plan, which I durst not propose, but with so long a minority the estate will bear it. Alick has his sister's fortune back again, and the Menteith children a few hundreds; but Menteith is rabid about the guardianship, and would hardly speak to Alick."