"They always keep the peace with me. Isabel even made us a wedding present—a pair of miniatures of my father and mother, that I am very glad to rescue, though, as she politely told me, I was welcome to them, for they were hideously dressed, and she wanted the frames for two sweet photographs of Garibaldi and the Queen of Naples."
Then looking up as if to find a place for them—
"Why, Ermine, what have you done to the room? It is the old parsonage drawing-room!"
"Did not you mean it, when you took the very proportions of the bay window, and chose just such a carpet?"
"But what have you done to it?"
"Ailie and Rose, and Lady Temple and her boys, have done it. I have sat looking on, and suggesting. Old things that we kept packed up have seen the light, and your beautiful Indian curiosities have found their corners."
"And the room has exactly the old geranium scent!"
"I think the Curtises must have brought half their greenhouse down. Do you remember the old oak-leaf geranium that you used to gather a leaf of whenever you passed our old conservatory?"
"I have been wondering where the fragrance came from that made the likeness complete. I have smelt nothing like it since!"
"I said that I wished for one, and Grace got off without a word, and searched everywhere at Avoncester till she found one in a corner of the Dean's greenhouse. There, now you have a leaf in your fingers, I think you do feel at home."
"Not quite, Ermine. It still has the dizziness of a dream. I have so often conjured up all this as a vision, that now there is nothing to take me away from it, I can hardly feel it a reality."
"Then I shall ring. Tibbie and the poor little Lord upstairs are substantial witnesses to the cares and troubles of real life."
CHAPTER XXX. WHO IS THE CLEVER WOMAN?
"Half-grown as yet, a child and vain, She cannot fight the fight of death. What is she cut from love and faith?" Knowledge and Wisdom, TENNYSON.
It was long before the two Mrs. Keiths met again. Mrs. Curtis and Grace were persuaded to spend the spring and summer in Scotland, and Alick's leave of absence was felt to be due to Mr. Clare, and thus it was that the first real family gathering took place on occasion of the opening of the institution that had grown out of the Burnaby Bargain. This work had cost Colonel Keith and Mr. Mitchell an infinity of labour and perseverance before even the preliminaries could be arranged, but they contrived at length to carry it out, and by the fourth spring after the downfall of the F. U. E. E. a house had been erected for the convalescents, whose wants were to be attended to by a matron, assisted by a dozen young girls in training for service.
The male convalescents were under the discipline of Sergeant O'Brien and the whole was to be superintended by Colonel and Mrs. Keith. Ermine undertook to hear a class of the girls two or three times a week, and lower rooms had been constructed with a special view to her being wheeled into them, so as to visit the convalescents, and give them her attention and sympathy. Mary Morris was head girl, most of the others were from Avonmouth, but two pale Londoners came from Mr. Touchett's district, and a little motherless lassie from the —th Highlanders was brought down with the nursery establishment, on which Mrs. Alexander Keith now practised the "Hints on the management of Infants."
May was unusually propitious, and after an orthodox tea-drinking, the new pupils and all the Sunday-schools were turned out to play on the Homestead slopes, with all the world to look on at them. It was a warm, brilliant day, of joyous blossom and lively green, and long laughing streaks of sunlight on the sea, and no one enjoyed it more than did Ermine, as she sat in her chair delighting in the fresh sweetness of the old thorns, laughing at the freaks of the scampering groups of children, gaily exchanging pleasant talk with one friend after another, and most of all with Rachel, who seemed to gravitate back to her whenever any summons had for a time interrupted their affluence of conversation.
And all the time Ermine's footstool was serving as a table for the various flowers that two children were constantly gathering in the grass and presenting to her, to Rachel, or to each other, with a constant stream of not very comprehensible prattle, full of pretty gesticulation that seemed to make up for the want of distinctness. The yellow-haired, slenderly-made, delicately-featured boy, whose personal pronouns were just developing, and his consonants very scanty, though the elder of the two, dutifully and admiringly obeyed the more distinct, though less connected, utterances of the little dark-eyed girl, eked out by pretty imperious gestures, that seemed already to enchain the little white-frocked cavalier to her service. All the time it was droll to see how the two ladies could pay full attention to the children, while going on with their own unbroken stream of talk.
"I am not overwhelming you," suddenly exclaimed Rachel, checking herself in mid-career about the mothers' meetings for the soldiers' wives.
"Far from it. Was I inattentive—?"
"Oh no—(Yes, Una dear, very pretty)—but I found myself talking in the voice that always makes Alick shut his eyes."—"I should not think he often had to do so," said Ermine, much amused by this gentle remedy—("Mind, Keith, that is a nettle. It will sting—")
"Less often than before," said Rachel—("Never mind the butterfly, Una)—I don't think I have had more than one thorough fit of what he calls leaping into the gulf. It was about the soldiers' wives married without leave, who, poor things, are the most miserable creatures in the world; and when I first found out about them I was in the sort of mood I was in about the lace, and raved about the system, and was resolved to employ one poor woman, and Alick looked meeker and meeker, and assented to all I said, as if he was half asleep, and at last he quietly took up a sheet of paper, and said he must write and sell out, since I was bent on my gulf, and an officer's wife must be bound by the regulations of the service. I was nearly as bad as ever, I could have written an article on the injustice of the army regulations, indeed I did begin, but what do you think the end was? I got a letter from a good lady, who is always looking after the poor, to thank Mrs. Alexander Keith for the help that had been sent for this poor woman, to be given as if from the general fund. After that I could not help listening to him, and then I found it was so impossible to know about character, or to be sure that one was not doing more harm than—What is it, boys?" as three or four Temples rushed up.
"Aunt Rachel, Mr. Clare is going to teach us a new game, and he says you know it. Pray come."
"Come, Una. What, Keith, will you come too? I'll take care of him, Ermine."
And with a child in each hand, Rachel followed the deputation, and had scarcely disappeared before the light gracious figure of Rose glanced through the thorn trees. "Aunt Ermine, you must come nearer; it is so wonderful to see Mr. Clare teaching this game."
"Don't push my chair, my dear; it is much too heavy for you uphill."
"As if I could not drive you anywhere, and here is Conrade coming."
Conrade was in search of the deserter, but he applied himself heartily to the propulsion of aunt Ermine, informing Rose that Mr. Clare was no end of a man, much better than if he could see, and aunt Rachel was grown quite jolly.
"I think she has left off her long words," said Rose.
"She is not a civilian now," said Conrade, quite unconscious of Ermine's amusement at his confidences as he pushed behind her. "I did think it a most benighted thing to marry her, but that's what it is. Military discipline has made her conformable." Having placed the chair on a spot which commanded the scene, the boy and girl rushed off to take their part in the sport, leaving Ermine looking down a steep bank at the huge ring of performers, with linked hands, advancing and receding to the measure of a chanted verse round a figure in the centre, who made gesticulations, pursued and caught different individuals in the ring, and put them through a formula which provoked shouts of mirth. Ermine much enjoyed the sight, it was pretty to watch the 'prononce' dresses of the parish children, interspersed with the more graceful forms of the little gentry, and here and there a taller lady. Then Ermine smiled to recognise Alison as usual among her boys, and Lady Temple's soft greys and whites, and gentle floating movements, as she advanced and receded with Stephana in one hand, and a shy infant-school child in the other. But Ermine's eye roamed anxiously, for though Rachel's animated, characteristic gestures were fully discernible, and her little Una's arch toss of the head marked her out, yet the companion whom she had beguiled away, and who had become more to Ermine than any other of the frisking little ones of the flock, was neither with her not with his chief protector, Rose. In a second or two, however, the step that to her had most "music in't" of all footfalls that ever were trodden, was sounding on the path that led circuitously up the path, and the Colonel appeared with the little runaway holding his hand.
"Why, baby, you are soon come away!"
"I did not like it,—sit on mamma's knee," said the little fellow, scrambling to his place then as one who felt it his own nest and throne.
"He was very soon frightened," said the Colonel; "it was only that little witch Una who could have deluded him into such a crowd, and, as soon as she saw a bigger boy to beguile, she instantly deserted Keith, so I relieved Rachel of him."
"See Rachel now; Mr. Clare is interrogating her. How she is making them laugh! I did not think she could ever have so entered into fun."
"Alick must have made it a part of her education. When the Invalid has time for another essay, Ermine, it should be on the Benefits of Ridicule."
"Against Clever Womanhood? But then the subject must have Rachel's perfect good humour."
"And the weapon must be in the most delicately skilful hands," added the Colonel. "Properly wielded, it saves blunting the superior weapon by over-frequent use. Here the success is complete."
"It has been irony rather than ridicule," said Ermine, "though, when he taught her to laugh, he won half the battle. It is beautiful to see her holding herself back, and most forbearing where she feels most positive. I am glad to see him looking so much stronger and more substantial. Where is he?"
"On the further bank, supposed by Mrs. Curtis to be asleep, but watching uncle, wife, and child through his eyelashes. Did you ever see any one so like his sister as that child?"
"Much more so than this one. I am glad he may one day see such a shadow of his bright-faced mother."
"You are mother!" said the the little orphan, looking up into Ermine's face with a startled, wistful look, as having caught more of her meaning than she had intended, and she met his look with a kiss, the time was not yet come for gainsaying the belief more than in the words, "Yes, always a mother to you, my precious little man."
"Nor could you have had a bonnier face to look into," added the Colonel. "There, the game breaks up. We should collect our flock, and get them them back to Les Invalides, as Alick calls it."
"Take care no one else does so," said Ermine, laughing. "It has been a most happy day, and chief of all the pleasures has been the sight of Rachel just what I hoped, a thorough wife and mother, all the more so for her being awake to larger interests, and doing common things better for being the Clever Woman of the family. Where is she? I don't see her now."
Where is she? was asked by more than one of the party, but the next to see her was Alick, who found her standing at the window of her own room, with her long-robed, two-months' old baby in her arms. "Tired?" he asked.
"No; I only sent down nurse to drink tea with the other grandees. What a delightful day it has been! I never hoped that such good fruit would rise out of my unhappy blunders."
"The blunders that brought so much good to me."
"Ah! the old places bring them back again. I have been recollecting how it used to seem to me the depth of my fall that you were marrying me out of pure pity, without my having the spirit to resent or prevent it, and now I just like to think how kind and noble it was in you."
"I am glad to hear it! I thought I was so foolishly in love, that I was very glad of any excuse for pressing it on."
"Are the people dispersing? Where is your uncle?"
"He went home with the Colonel and his wife; he has quite lost his heart to Ermine."
"And Una—did you leave her with Grace?"
"No, she trotted down hand in hand with his little lordship: promising to lead her uncle back."
"My dear Alick, you don't mean that you trust to that?"
"Why, hardly implicitly."
"Is that the way you say so? They may be both over the cliffs. If you will just stay in the room with baby, I will go down and fetch them up."
Alick very obediently held out his arms for his son, but when Rachel proceeded to take up her hat, he added, "You have run miles enough to-day. I am going down as soon as my uncle has had time to pay his visit in peace, without being hunted."
"Does he know that?"
"The Colonel does, which comes to the same thing. Is not this boy just of the age that little Keith was when you gave him up?"
"Yes; and is it not delightful to see how much larger and heavier he is!"
"Hardly, considering your objections to fine children."
"Oh, that was only to coarse, over-grown ones. Una is really quite as tall as little Keith, and much more active. You saw he could not play at the game at all, and she was all life and enjoyment, with no notion of shyness."
"It does not enter into her composition."
"And she speaks much plainer. I never miss a word she says, and I don't understand Keith a bit, though he tells such long stories."
"Then she knows all her letters by sight—almost all, and Ermine can never get him to tell b from d; and you know how she can repeat so many little verses, while he could not even say, 'Thank you, pretty cow,' this morning, when I wanted to hear him."
"It is only eight months; but then Una is such a bright, forward child."
"Now, Alick, what am I about? Why are you agreeing with me?"
"I am between the horns of a dilemma. Either our young chieftain must be a dunce, or we are rearing the Clever Woman of the family."
"I hope not!" exclaimed Rachel.
"Indeed? I would not grudge her a superior implement, even if I had sometimes cut my own fingers."
"But, Alick, I really do not think I ever was such a Clever Woman."
"I never thought you one," he quietly returned.
She smiled. This faculty had much changed her countenance. "I see," she said, thoughtfully, "I had a few intellectual tastes, and liked to think and read, which was supposed to be cleverness; and my wilfulness made me fancy myself superior in force of character, in a way I could never have imagined if I had lived more in the world. Contact with really clever people has shown me that I am slow and unready."
"It was a rusty implement, and you tried weight instead of edge. Now it is infinitely brighter."
"But, Alick," she said, leaving the thought of herself for that of her child, "I believe you may be right about Una, for," she added in low voice, "she is like the most practically clever person I ever saw."
"True," he answered gravely, "I see it every day, in every saucy gesture and coaxing smile, when she tries to turn away displeasure in her naughty fits. I hardly knew how to look on at her airs with Keith, it was so exactly like the little sister I first knew. Rachel, such cleverness as that is a far more perilous gift to woman than your plodding intellectuality could ever be. God grant," he added, with one of the effusions which sometimes broke through his phlegmatic temperament, "that this little fellow may be a kinder, wiser brother than ever I was, and that we may bring her up to your own truth and unselfishness. Then such power would be a happy endowment."
"Yes," said Rachel, "may she never be out of your influence, or be left to untrustworthy hands. I should have been much better if I had had either father or brother to keep me in order. Poor child, she has a wonderful charm, not all my fancy, Alick. And yet there is one whose real working talent has been more than that of any of us, who has made it effective for herself and others, and has let it do her only good, not harm."
"You are right. If we are to show Una how intellect and brilliant power can be no snares, but only blessings helping the spirits in infirmity and trouble, serving as a real engine for independence and usefulness, winning love and influence for good, genuine talents in the highest sense of the word, then commend me to such a Clever Woman of the family as Ermine Keith."