"Thank you, but I have it here."
"Indeed; and do you not think it excellent, and quite agree with it?"
"Yes, I quite agree with it," and there was an odd look in her bright transparent eyes that made Grace speculate whether she could have heard that agreement with the Invalid in the "Traveller's Review" was one of the primary articles of faith acquired by Rachel.
But Grace, though rather proud of Rachel's falling under the spell of Miss Williams' conversation, deemed an examination rather hard on her, and took the opportunity of asking for her sister.
"She is generally at home by this time; but this is her last day at Cliff Cottages, and she was to stay late to help in the packing up."
"Will she be at home for the present?" asked Grace.
"Yes, Rose and I are looking forward to a festival of her."
Grace was not at all surprised to hear Rachel at once commit herself with "My cousin, Lady Temple," and rush into the matter in hand as if secure that the other Miss Williams would educate on the principles of the Invalid; but full in the midst there was a sound of wheels and a ring at the bell. Miss Williams quietly signed to her little attendant to put a chair in an accessible place, and in walked Lady Temple, Mrs. Curtis, and the middle brace of boys.
"The room will be too full," was Grace's aside to her sister, chiefly thinking of her mother, but also of their hostess; but Rachel returned for answer, "I must see about it;" and Grace could only remove herself into the verandah, and try to attract Leoline and Hubert after her, but failing in this, she talked to the far more conversible Rose about the bullfinch that hung at the window, which loved no one but Aunt Ermine, and scolded and pecked at every one else; and Augustus, the beloved tame toad, that lived in a hole under a tree in the garden. Mrs. Curtis, considerate and tender-hearted, startled to find her daughter in the field, and wishing her niece to begin about her own affairs, talked common-place by way of filling up the time, and Rachel had her eyes free for a range of the apartment. The foundation was the dull, third-rate lodging-house, the superstructure told of other scenes. One end of the room was almost filled by the frameless portrait of a dignified clergyman, who would have had far more justice done to him by greater distance; a beautifully-painted miniature of a lady with short waist and small crisp curls, was the centre of a system of photographs over the mantel-piece; a large crayon sketch showed three sisters between the ages of six and sixteen, sentimentalizing over a flower-basket; a pair of water-colour drawings represented a handsome church and comfortable parsonage; and the domestic gallery was completed by two prints—one of a middle-aged county-member, the other one of Chalon's ladylike matrons in watered-silk aprons. With some difficulty Rachel read on the one the autograph, J. T. Beauchamp, and on the other the inscription, the Lady Alison Beauchamp. The table-cover was of tasteful silk patchwork, the vase in the centre was of red earthenware, but was encircled with real ivy leaves gummed on in their freshness, and was filled with wild flowers; books filled every corner; and Rachel felt herself out of the much-loathed region of common-place, but she could not recover from her surprise at the audacity of such an independent measure on the part of her cousin; and under cover of her mother's civil talk, said to Fanny, "I never expected to see you here."
"My aunt thought of it," said Fanny, "and as she seems to find the children too much—"
She broke off, for Mrs. Curtis had paused to let her introduce the subject, but poor Fanny had never taken the initiative, and Rachel did it for her by explaining that all had come on the same errand, to ask if Miss Williams would undertake the lessons of her nephews; Lady Temple softly murmured under her veil something about hopes and too much trouble; an appointment was made for the following morning, and Mrs. Curtis, with a general sensation of an oppressive multitude in a small room, took her leave, and the company departed, Fanny, all the way home, hoping that the other Miss Williams would be like her sister, pitying the cripple, wishing that the sisters were in the remotest degree military, so as to obtain the respect of the hoys, and wondering what would be the Major's opinion.
"So many ladies!" exclaimed little Rose. "Aunt Ermine, have they made your head ache?"
"No, my dear, thank you, I am only tired. If you will pull out the rest for my feet, I will be quiet a little, and be ready for tea when Aunt Ailie comes."
The child handily converted the chair into a couch, arranging the dress and coverings with the familiarity of long use, and by no means shocked by the contraction and helplessness of the lower limbs, to which she had been so much accustomed all her life that it never even occurred to her to pity Aunt Ermine, who never treated herself as an object of compassion. She was thanked by a tender pressure on her hair, and then saying—
"Now I shall wish Augustus good night; bring Violetta home from her play in the garden, and let her drink tea, and go to bed."
Ah, Violetta, purchased with a silver groat, what was not your value in Mackarel Lane? Were you not one of its most considered inhabitants, scarcely less a child of Aunt Ermine and Aunt Alison than their Rosebud herself?
Murmur, murmur, rippled the child's happy low-toned monologue directed to her silent but sufficient playmate, and so far from disturbing the aunt, that more than one smile played on her lips at the quaint fancies, and at the well of gladness in the young spirit, which made day after day of the society of a cripple and an old doll, one constant song of bliss, one dream of bright imaginings. Surely it was an equalization of blessings that rendered little lonely Rose, motherless and well nigh fatherless, poor, with no companion but a crippled aunt, a bird and a toad, with scarcely a toy, and never a party of pleasure, one of the most joyous beings under the sun, free from occasions of childish troubles, without collisions of temper, with few contradictions, and with lessons rather pleasure than toil. Perhaps Ermine did not take into account the sunshiny content and cheerfulness that made herself a delightful companion and playfellow, able to accept the child as her solace, not her burthen.
Presently Rose looked up, and meeting the bright pleasant eyes, observed—"Violetta has been very good, and said all her lessons quite perfect, and she would like to sit up till her Aunt Ailie comes home. Do you think she may?"
"Will she not be tired to-morrow?"
"Oh, then she will be lazy, and not get up when she is called, till I pull all the clothes off, and that will be fun."
"Or she may be fretful now?"
A series of little squeaks ensued, followed by "Now, my love; that is taking a very unfair advantage of my promise. You will make your poor Aunt Ermine's head ache, and I shall have to send you to bed."
"Would not a story pass away the time?"
"You tell it, Aunt Ermine; your stories are always the best. And let there be a fairy in it!"
The fairy had nearly performed her part, when the arrival took place, and Rose darted forward to receive Aunt Ailie's greeting kiss.
"Yes, Rosie—yes, Violetta; what do you think I have got for you?"
And out came a doll's chair with a broken leg, condemned by the departing pupils, and granted with a laugh to the governess's request to take it to her little niece; but never in its best days had the chair been so prized. It was introduced to Violetta as the reward of virtue for having controlled her fretfulness, and the repair of its infirmity was the first consideration that occupied all the three. After all, Violetta's sitting posture was, as Alison observed, an example of the inclined plane, but that was nothing to Rose, and the seance would have been indefinitely prolonged, but for considerations for Violetta's health.
The sisters were alike, and Alison had, like her elder, what is emphatically called countenance, but her features were less chiselled, and her dark straight brows so nearly met that, as Rose had once remarked, they made a bridge of one arch instead of two. Six years younger, in full health, and daily battling with the world, Alison had a remarkable look of concentration and vigour, her upright bearing, clear decided speech, and glance of kindness won instant respect and reliance, but her face missed the radiant beamy brightness of her sister's; her face was sweet and winning, but it was not habitual with her, and there was about her a look as if some terrible wave of grief or suffering had swept over her ere yet the features were fully fixed, and had thus moulded her expression for life. But playfulness was the tone that reigned around Ermine's couch at ordinary moments, and beside her the grave Alison was lively, not with effort, but by infection.
"There," she said, holding up a cheque; "now we'll have a jubilee, and take you down under the East cliff, and we'll invest a shilling in 'Ivanhoe,' and Rose and Violetta shall open their ears!"
"And you shall have a respectable Sunday mantle."
"Oh, I dare say Julia will send us a box."
"Then you will have to put a label on your back, 'Second-hand!' or her velvet will be a scandal. I can't wear out that at home like this flagrant, flowery thing, that I saw Miss Curtis looking at as rather a disreputable article. There's preferment for you, Ailie! What do you think of a general's widow with six boys? She is come after you. We had a great invasion—three Curtises and this pretty little widow, and various sons!"
"Will she stay?"
"Most likely, for she is a relation of Mrs. Curtis, and comes to be near her. You are to call for inspection at eleven o'clock tomorrow, so I fear your holiday will be short."
"Well, the less play the less anxiety. How many drives will the six young gentlemen be worth to you?"
"I am afraid it will be at the cost of tough work to you; she looked to me too sweet a creature to have broken her sons in, but I should think she would be pleasant to deal with."
"If she be like Miss Curtis, I am sure she will."
"Miss Curtis? My old friend you mean. She was rather suppressed today, and I began to comprehend the reason of the shudder with which Mr. Touchett speaks of the dogmatical young lady."
"I hope she did not overwhelm you!"
"Oh, no! I rather liked her; she was so earnest and spirited, I could fancy enjoying a good passage at arms with her if these were old times. But I hope she will not take the direction of your school-room, though she is an admirer of the educational papers in the 'Traveller.'"
And here the discussion was ended by the entrance of little Rose with the preliminaries of the evening meal, after which she went to bed, and the aunts took out books, work, and writing materials.
Alison's report the next day was—"Well, she is a very sweet creature. There is something indescribably touching in her voice and eyes, so soft and wistful, especially when she implores one not to be hard on those great scrambling boys of hers."
"So she is your fate?"
"Oh, yes, if there had been ten more engagements offered, I could not have helped accepting hers, even if it had not been on the best terms I have ever had."
"Seventy—for the hours between nine and five. Pretty well for a journeyman hack, is it not? Indeed, the pretty thing's only fear seemed to be that she was requiring too much, and offering too little. No, not her only fear, for there is some major in the distance to whose approval everything must be subject—uncle or guardian, I suppose, but he seemed to be rather an object of jealousy to the younger Miss Curtis, for every hint of wishing to wait for the Major made her press on the negotiations."
"Seventy! I hope you will make it do, Ailie. It would be a great relief."
"And spare your brains not a little. Yes, I do trust to keeping it, for Lady Temple is delightful; and as to the boys, I fancy it is only taming they want. The danger is, as Miss Rachel told me, whether she can bear the sight of the process. I imagine Miss Rachel herself has tried it, and failed."
"Part amateur work," said Ermine, smiling. "It really is lucky you had to turn governess, Ailie, or there would have been a talent thrown away."
"Stay till I have tried," said Alison, who had, however, had experience enough not to be much alarmed at the prospect. Order was wont to come with her presence, and she hardly knew the aspect of tumultuous idleness or insubordination to unenforced authority; for her eye and voice in themselves brought cheerful discipline without constraint, and upheld by few punishments, for the strong influence took away the spirit of rebellion.
After her first morning's work she came home full of good auguries; the boys had been very pleasant with her after the first ten minutes, and Conrade had gained her heart by his attention to his mother. He had, however, examined her minutely whether she had any connexion with the army, and looked grave on her disavowal of any relationship with soldiers; Hubert adding, "You see, Aunt Rachel is only a civilian, and she hasn't any sense at all." And when Francis had been reduced to the much disliked process of spelling unknown words, he had muttered under his breath, "She was only a civilian." To which she had rejoined that "At least she knew thus much, that the first military duty was obedience," and Francis's instant submission proved that she had made a good shot. Of the Major she had heard much more. Everything was referred to him, both by mother and children, and Alison was the more puzzled as to his exact connexion with them. "I sometimes suspect," she said, "that he may have felt the influence of those winsome brown eyes and caressing manner, as I know I should if I were a man. I wonder how long the old general has been dead? No, Ermine, you need not shake your head at me. I don't mean even to let Miss Curtis tell me if she would. I know confidences from partisan relations are the most mischief-making things in the world."
In pursuance of this principle Alison, or Miss Williams, as she was called in her vocation, was always reserved and discreet, and though ready to talk in due measure, Rachel always felt that it was the upper, not the under current that was proffered. The brow and eyes, the whole spirit of the face, betokened reflection and acuteness, and Rachel wanted to attain to her opinions; but beyond a certain depth there was no reaching. Her ways of thinking, her views of the children's characters, her estimate of Mr. Touchett—nay, even her tastes as to the Invalid's letters in the "Traveller's Review," remained only partially revealed, in spite of Rachel's best efforts at fishing, and attempting to set the example.
"It really seemed," as she observed to Grace, "as if the more I talk, the less she says." At which Grace gave way to a small short laugh, though she owned the force of Rachel's maxim, that to bestow confidence was the way to provoke it; and forbore to refer to a certain delightful afternoon that Rachel, in her childhood, had spent alone with a little girl whom she had never discovered to be deaf and dumb. Still Rachel had never been able to make out why Grace, with no theories at all, got so many more confidences than she did. She was fully aware of her sister's superior attractiveness to common-place people, and made her welcome to stand first with the chief of their kindred, and most of the clergy and young ladies around. But it was hard that where Rachel really liked and met half-way, the intimate confidence should always be bestowed upon Grace, or even the mother. She had yet to learn that the way to draw out a snail is not to, grasp its horns, and that halfway meeting is not to launch one's self to the opposite starting point. Either her inquiries were too point blank to invite detailed replies, or her own communications absorbed her too much to leave room for a return. Thus she told Miss Williams the whole story of the thrush's nest, and all her own reflections upon the characteristics it betokened; and only afterwards, on thinking over the conversation, perceived that she had elicited nothing but that it was very difficult to judge in such cases, not even any decided assent to her own demonstrations. It was true that riots and breaches of the peace ceased while Miss Williams was in the house, and learning and good manners were being fast acquired; but until Conrade's duplicity should be detected, or the whole disposition of the family discussed with herself, Rachel doubted the powers of the instructress. It was true that Fanny was very happy with her, and only regretted that the uncertainty of the Major's whereabouts precluded his being informed of the newly-found treasure; but Fanny was sure to be satisfied as long as her boys were happy and not very naughty, and she cared very little about people's minds.
If any one did "get on" with the governess it was Grace, who had been the first acquaintance in the family, and met her often in the service of the parish, as well as in her official character at the Homestead. It so chanced that one Sunday afternoon they found themselves simultaneously at the door of the school-house, whence issued not the customary hum, but loud sounds of singing.
"Ah!" said Grace, "Mr. Touchett was talking of getting the choir master from Avoncester, and giving up an afternoon to practice for Easter, but he never told me it was to be to-day."
On inquiry, it appeared that notice had been given in the morning, but not till after Miss Williams had gone home to fetch her little niece, and while Rachel was teaching her boys in the class-room out of hearing. It was one of the little bits of bad management that were sure to happen wherever poor Mr. Touchett was concerned; and both ladies feeling it easy to overlook for themselves, were thankful that it had not befallen Rachel. Alison Williams, thinking it far to walk either to the Homestead or Myrtlewood before church, proposed to Grace to come home with her, an offer that was thankfully accepted, with merely the scruple whether she should disturb the invalid.
"Oh, no, it would be a great pleasure; I always wish we could get more change and variety for her on Sunday."
"She is very self-denying to spare you to the school."
"I have often wished to give it up, but she never will let me. She says it is one of the few things we can do, and I see besides that it brings her fresh interests. She knows about all my class, and works for them, and has them to see her; and I am sure it is better for her, though it leaves her more hours alone with Rose."
"And the Sunday services are too long for her?"
"Not so much that, as that she cannot sit on those narrow benches unless two are put close together so that she can almost lie, and there is not room for her chair in the aisle on a Sunday. It is the greatest deprivation of all."
"It is so sad, and she is so patient and so energetic," said Grace, using her favourite monosyllable in peace, out of Rachel's hearing.
"You would say so, indeed, if you really knew her, or how she has found strength and courage for me through all the terrible sutfering."
"Then does she suffer so much?"
"Oh, no, not now! That was in the first years."
"It was not always so."
"No, indeed! You thought it deformity! Oh, no, no! she was so beautiful."
"That she is still. I never saw my sister so much struck with any one. There is something so striking in her bright glance out of those clear eyes."
"Ah! if you had only seen her bloom before—"
"I burnt her," said Alison, almost inaudibly.
"You! you, poor dear! How dreadful for you."
"Yes, I burnt her," said Alison, more steadily. "You ought not to be kind to me without knowing about it. It was an accident of course, but it was a fit of petulance. I threw a match without looking where it was going."
"It must have been when you were very young."
"Fourteen. I was in a naughty fit at her refusing to go to the great musical meeting with us. We always used to go to stay at one of the canon's houses for it, a house where one was dull and shy; and I could not bear going without her, nor understand the reason."
"And was there a reason?"
"Yes, poor dear Ermine. She knew he meant to come there to meet her, and she thought it would not be right; because his father had objected so strongly, and made him exchange into a regiment on foreign service."
"And you did not know this?"
"No, I was away all the time it was going on, with my eldest sister, having masters in London. I did not come home till it was all over, and then I could not understand what was the matter with the house, or why Ermine was unlike herself, and papa restless and anxious about her. They thought me too young to be told, and the atmosphere made me cross and fretful, and papa was displeased with me, and Ermine tried in vain to make me good; poor patient Ermine, even then the chief sufferer!"
"I can quite imagine the discomfort and fret of being in ignorance all the time."
"Dear Ermine says she longed to tell me, but she had been forbidden, and she went on blaming herself and trying to make me enjoy my holidays as usual, till this dreadful day, when I had worried her intolerably about going to this music meeting, and she found reasoning only made me worse. She still wrote her note of refusal, and asked me to light the taper; I dashed down the match in a frenzy of temper and—"
She paused for breath, and Grace squeezed her hand.
"We did not see it at first, and then she threw herself down and ordered me not to come near. Every one was there directly, I believe, but it burst out again and again, and was not put out till they all thought she had not an hour to live. There was no pain, and there she lay, all calmness, comforting us all, and making papa and Edward promise to forgive me—me, who only wished they would kill me! And the next day he came; he was just going to sail, and they thought nothing would hurt her then. I saw him while he was waiting, and never did I see such a fixed deathly face. But they said she found words to cheer and soothe him."
"And what became of him?"
"We do not know. As long as Lady Alison lived (his aunt) she let us hear about him, and we knew he was recovering from his wound. Then came her death, and then my father's, and all the rest, and we lost sight of the Beauchamps. We saw the name in the Gazette as killed at Lucknow, but not the right Christian name nor the same rank; but then, though the regiment is come home, we have heard nothing of him, and though she has never spoken of him to me, I am sure Ermine believes he is dead, and thinks of him as part of the sunshine of the old Beauchamp days—the sunshine whose reflection lasts one's life."
"He ought to be dead," said Grace.
"Yes, it would be better for her than to hear anything else of him! He had nothing of his own, so there would have been a long waiting, but his father and brother would not hear of it, and accused us of entrapping him, and that angered my father. For our family is quite good, and we were very well off then. My father had a good private fortune besides the Rectory at Beauchamp; and Lady Alison, who had been like a mother to us ever since our own died, quite thought that the prospect was good enough, and I believe got into a great scrape with her family for having promoted the affair."
"Your squire's wife?"
"Yes, and Julia and Ermine had come every day to learn lessons with her daughters. I was too young; but as long as she lived we were all like one family. How kind she was! How she helped us through those frightful weeks!"
"Of your sister's illness? It must have lasted long?"
"Long? Oh longer than long! No one thought of her living. The doctors said the injury was too extensive to leave any power of rallying; but she was young and strong, and did not die in the torture, though people said that such an existence as remained to her was not worth the anguish of struggling back to it. I think my father only prayed that she might suffer less, and Julia stayed on and on, thinking each day would be the last, till Dr. Long could not spare her any longer; and then Lady Alison nursed her night after night and day after day, till she had worn herself into an illness, and when the doctors spoke of improvement, we only perceived worse agony. It was eight months before she was even lifted up in bed, and it was years before the burns ceased to be painful or the constitution at all recovered the shock; and even now weather tells on her, though since we have lived here she has been far better than I ever dared to hope."
"Then you consider her still recovering?"
"In general health she is certainly greatly restored, and has strength to attempt more, but the actual injury, the contraction, can never be better than now. When we lived at Richmond she had constantly the best advice, and we were told that nothing more could be hoped for."
"I wonder more and more at her high spirits. I suppose that was what chiefly helped to carry her through?"
"I have seen a good many people," said Alison, pausing, "but I never did see any one so happy! Others are always wanting something; she never is. Every enjoyment seems to be tenfold to her what it is to other people; she sees the hopeful side of every sorrow. No burthen is a burthen when one has carried it to her."
As Alison spoke, she pushed open the narrow green door of the little lodging-house, and there issued a weak, sweet sound of voices: "The strain upraise of joy and praise." It was the same that had met their ears at the school-door, but the want of body in the voices was fully compensated by the heartfelt ring, as if here indeed was praise, not practice.
"Aunt Ailie! O Aunt Ailie!" cried the child, as the room-door opened and showed the little choir, consisting of herself, her aunt, and the small maid of the house, "you should not have come, you were not to hear us till Trinity Sunday."
Explanations were given, and Miss Curtis was welcomed, but Alison, still too much moved for ordinary conversation, slipped into the bedroom adjoining, followed by her sister's quick and anxious eye, and half-uttered inquiry.
"I am afraid it is my fault," said Grace; "she has been telling me about your accident."
"Poor Ailie," said Ermine, "she never will receive kindness without having that unlucky story out! It is just one of the things that get so cruelly exaggerated by consequences. It was one moment's petulance that might have caused a fright and been forgotten ever after, but for those chemicals. Ah! I see, she said nothing about them, because they were Edward's. They were some parcels for his experiments, gun cotton and the like, which were lying in the window till he had time to take them upstairs. We had all been so long threatened with being blown up by his experiments that we had grown callous and careless, and it served us right!" she added, stroking the child's face as it looked at her, earnest to glean fresh fragments of the terrible half-known tale of the past. "Yes, Rosie, when you go and keep house for papa on the top of the Oural Mountains, or wherever it may be, you are to remember that if Aunt Ermine had not been in a foolish, inattentive mood, and had taken his dangerous goods out of the way, she might have been trotting to church now like other people. But poor Ailie has always helped herself to the whole blame, and if every childish fit of temper were the root of such qualities, what a world we should have here!"
"Ah! no wonder she is devoted to you."
"The child was not fifteen, had never known cross or care, but from that moment she never was out of my room if it was possible to be in; and when nurse after nurse was fairly worn out, because I could not help being so distressing, there was always that poor child, always handy and helpful, growing to be the chief dependence, and looking so piteously imploring whatever was tried, that it really helped me to go through with it. Poor Ailie," she added with an odd turn of playfulness, "I always fancied those frowns of anxiety made her eyebrows grow together. And ever since we came here, we know how she has worked away for her old cinder and her small Rosebud, don't we?" she added, playfully squeezing the child's cheeks up into a more budding look, hiding deeper and more overcoming feelings by the sportive action. And as her sister came back, she looked up and shook her head at her, saying,—
"You gossiping Ailie, to go ripping up old grievances. I am going to ask Miss Curtis not to let the story go any farther, now you have relieved your mind of it."
"I did tell Lady Temple," said Alison; "I never think it right not to let people know what sort of person they have to teach their children."
And Grace, on feeling her way, discovered that Lady Temple had been told the bare fact in Miss Williams's reserved and business-like manner, but with nothing of the affair that had led to it. She merely looked on it in the manner fully expressed by—"Ah, poor thing; how sad for her!" as a shocking secret, never to be talked of or thought about. And that voluntary detailed relation from Alison could only be regarded as drawn forth by Grace's own individual power of winning confidence, and the friendliness that had so long subsisted between them. Nor indeed was the reserve regarding the cause of the present reduced circumstances of the sisters at all lessened; it was only known that their brother had ruined them by a fraudulent speculation, and had then fled to the Continent, leaving them burthened with the maintenance of his child, but that they refused to believe in his guilt, and had thus incurred the displeasure of other relatives and friends. Alison was utterly silent about him. Ermine seemed to have a tender pleasure in bringing in a reference to his ways as if all were well, and it were a matter of course to speak of "Edward;" but it was plain that Ermine's was an outspoken nature. This might, however, be only because the one had been a guarded, sheltered invalid, while the other had gone forth among strangers to battle for a livelihood, and moreover, the elder sister had been fully grown and developed before the shock which had come on the still unformed Alison.
At any rate, nobody but Grace "got on" with the governess, while the invalid made friends with all who visited her, and most signally with Rachel, who, ere long, esteemed her environment a good work, worthy of herself. The charity of sitting with a twaddling, muffatee-knitting old lady was indisputable, but it was perfectly within Grace's capacity; and Rachel believed herself to be far more capable of entertaining the sick Miss Williams, nor was she mistaken. When excited or interested, most people thought her oppressive; but Ermine Williams, except when unwell, did not find her so, and even then a sharp debate was sometimes a cure for the nervous ailments induced by the monotony of her life. They seemed to have a sort of natural desire to rub their minds one against the other, and Rachel could not rest without Miss Williams's opinion of all that interested her—paper, essay, book, or event; but often, when expecting to confer a favour by the loan, she found that what was new to her was already well known in that little parlour, and even the authorship no mystery. Ermine explained this by her correspondence with literary friends of her brother's, and country-bred Rachel, to whom literature was still an oracle unconnected with living agencies, listened, yes, absolutely listened to her anecdotes of sayings and doings, far more like clever memoirs than the experiences of the banks of the Avon. Perhaps there was this immediate disadvantage, that hearing of a more intellectual tone of society tended to make Rachel less tolerant of that which surrounded her, and especially of Mr. Touchett. It was droll that, having so long shunned the two sisters under the impression that they were his protegees and worshippers, she found that Ermine's point of view was quite the rectorial one, and that to venerate the man for his office sake was nearly as hard to Ermine as to herself, though the office was more esteemed.
Alison, the reserved, had held her tongue on his antecedents; but Ermine was drawn into explaining that his father had been a minor canon, who had eked out his means with a combination of chaplaincies and parts of curacies, and by teaching at the school where his son was educated. Indignant at the hack estimation in which his father had been held, the son, far more justly viewing both the dignity and duty of his office, was resolved to be respected; but bred up in second rate society, had neither weight, talent, nor manners to veil his aggressive self-assertion, and he was at this time especially trying to the Curtises.
Cathedral music had been too natural to him for the endurance of an unchoral service, and the prime labour of his life was to work up his choir; but he was musical by education rather than nature, and having begun his career with such mortal offence to the native fiddlers and singers as to impel them into the arms of dissent, he could only supply the loss from the school by his own voice, of which he was not chary, though using it with better will than taste. The staple of his choir were Rachel's scholars. Her turn had always been for boys, and her class on Sunday mornings and two evenings in the week had long been in operation before the reign of Mr. Touchett. Then two lads, whose paternal fiddles had seceded to the Plymouth Brethren, were suspended from all advantages by the curate, and Rachel was with difficulty withheld from an explosion; but even this was less annoying than the summons at the class-room door every Sunday morning, that, in the midst of her lesson, carried off the chief of her scholars to practise their chants. Moreover, the blame of all imperfect lessons was laid on the "singing for the parson," and all faults in the singing by the tasks for Miss Rachel; and one night, the excellent Zack excused his failure in geography by saying that Mr. Touchett had thrown away his book, and said that it was no better than sacrilege, omitting, however, to mention that he had been caught studying it under his surplice during the lessons.
At last, with his usual fatality, the curate fixed the grand practice for the Saturday evenings that were Rachel's great days for instruction in the three R's, and for a sort of popular lecture. Cricket was to succeed the singing, and novelty carried the day, but only by the desertion of her scholars did Rachel learn the new arrangement, and she could hardly credit the assertion that the curate was not aware that it was her day. In fact, it was the only one when the fisher lads were sure not to be at sea, and neither party would yield it. Mr. Touchett was determined not to truckle to dictation from the great house; so when Rachel declared she would have nothing to do with the boys unless the Saturdays were conceded to her, he owned that he thought the clergyman had the first right to his lads, and had only not claimed them before out of deference for the feelings of a well-meaning parishioner.
Both parties poured out their grievances to the same auditor, for Mr. Touchett regarded Ermine Williams as partly clerical, and Rachel could never be easy without her sympathy. To hear was not, however, to make peace, while each side was so sore, so conscious of the merits of its own case, so blind to those of the other. One deemed praise in its highest form the prime object of his ministry; the other found the performance indevotional, and raved that education should be sacrificed to wretched music. But that the dissension was sad and mischievous, it would have been very diverting; they were both so young in their incapacity of making allowances, their certainty that theirs was the theory to bring in the golden age, and even in their magnanimity of forgiveness, and all the time they thought themselves so very old. "I am resigned to disappointments; I have seen something of life."—"You forget, Miss Williams, that my ministerial experience is not very recent."
There was one who would have smoothed matters far better than any, who, like Ermine, took her weapons from the armoury of good sense; but that person was entirely unconscious how the incumbent regarded her soft eyes, meek pensiveness, motherly sweetness, and, above all, the refined graceful dignity that remained to her from the leading station she had occupied. Her gracious respect towards her clergyman was a contrast as much to the deferential coquetry of his admirers as to the abruptness of his foe, and her indifference to parish details had even its charm in a world of fussiness; he did not know himself how far a wish of hers would have led him, and she was the last person to guess. She viewed him, like all else outside her nursery, as something out of the focus of her eye; her instinct regarded her clergyman as necessarily good and worthy, and her ear heard Rachel railing at him; it sounded hard, but it was a pity Rachel should be vexed and interfered with. In fact, she never thought of the matter at all; it was only part of that outer kind of dreamy stage-play at Avonmouth, in which she let herself he moved about at her cousin's bidding. One part of her life had passed away from her, and what remained to her was among her children; her interests and intelligence seemed contracted to Conrade's horizon, and as to everything else, she was subdued, gentle, obedient, but slow and obtuse.
Yet, little as he knew it, Mr. Touchett might have even asserted his authority in a still more trying manner. If the gentle little widow had not cast a halo round her relatives, he could have preached that sermon upon the home-keeping duties of women, or have been too much offended to accept any service from the Curtis family; and he could have done without them, for he had a wide middle-class popularity; his manners with the second-rate society, in which he had been bred, were just sufficiently superior and flattering to recommend all his best points, and he obtained plenty of subscriptions from visitors, and of co-operation from inhabitants. Many a young lady was in a flutter at the approach of the spruce little figure in black, and so many volunteers were there for parish work, that districts and classes were divided and subdivided, till it sometimes seemed as if the only difficulty was to find poor people enough who would submit to serve as the corpus vile for their charitable treatment.
For it was not a really poor population. The men were seafaring, the women lacemaking, and just well enough off to make dissent doubly attractive as an escape from some of the interfering almsgiving of the place. Over-visiting, criticism of dress, and inquisitorial examinations had made more than one Primitive Methodist, and no severe distress had been so recent as to render the women tolerant of troublesome weekly inspections. The Curtis sisters were, however, regarded as an exception; they were viewed as real gentlefolks, not only by their own tenants, but by all who were conscious of their hereditary claims to respect; they did not care whether hair were long or short, and their benefits were more substantial and reliable than could be looked for from the casual visitors and petty gentry around, so that sundry houses that were forbidden ground to district visitors, were ready to grant them a welcome.
One of these belonged to the most able lacemaker in the place, a hard-working woman, who kept seven little pupils in a sort of cupboard under the staircase, with a window into the back garden, "because," said she, "they did no work if they looked out into the front, there were so many gapsies;" these gapsies consisting of the very scanty traffic of the further end of Mackarel Lane. For ten hours a day did these children work in a space just wide enough for them to sit, with the two least under the slope of the stairs, permitted no distraction from their bobbins, but invaded by their mistress on the faintest sound of tongues. Into this hotbed of sprigs was admitted a child who had been a special favourite at school, an orphan niece of the head of the establishment. The two brothers had been lost together at sea; and while the one widow became noted for her lace, the other, a stranger to the art, had maintained herself by small millinery, and had not sacrificed her little girl to the Moloch of lace, but had kept her at school to a later age than usual in the place. But the mother died, and the orphan was at once adopted by the aunt, with the resolve to act the truly kind part by her, and break her in to lacemaking. That determination was a great blow to the school visitors; the girls were in general so young, or so stupefied with their work, that an intelligent girl like Lovedy Kelland was no small treasure to them; there were designs of making her a pupil teacher in a few years, and offers and remonstrances rained in upon her aunt. But they had no effect; Mrs. Kelland was persuaded that the child had been spoilt by learning, and in truth poor Lovedy was a refractory scholar; she was too lively to bear the confinement patiently; her mind was too much awake not to rebel against the dulness, and her fingers had not been brought into training early enough. Her incessant tears spoilt her thread, and Mrs. Kelland decided that "she'd never get her bread till she was broke of her buke;" which breaking was attempted by a summary pawning of all poor Lovedy's reward books. The poor child confided her loss to her young lady teacher at the Sunday school; the young lady, being new, young, and inflammable, reproached Mrs. Kelland with dishonesty and tyranny to the orphan, and in return was nearly frightened out of her wits by such a scolding as only such a woman as the lace mistress could deliver. Then Mr. Touchett tried his hand, and though he did not meet with quite so much violence, all he heard was that she had "given Lovedy the stick for being such a little tod as to complain, when she knew the money for the bukes was put safe away in her money-box. She was not going to the Sunday schule again, not she, to tell stories against her best friends!" And when the next district visitor came that way, the door was shut in her face, with the tract thrown out at the opening, and an intimation in Mrs. Kelland's shrill voice, that no more bukes were wanted; she got plenty from Miss Curtis.
These bukes from Miss Curtis were sanatory tracts, which Rachel was constantly bestowing, and which on Sundays Mrs. Kelland spelt through, with her finger under the line, in happy ignorance whether the subject were temporal or spiritual, and feeling herself in the exemplary discharge of a Sunday duty. Moreover, old feudal feeling made Rachel be unmolested when she came down twice a week, opened the door of the blackhole under the stairs, and read aloud something religious, something improving, and a bit of a story, following it up by mental arithmetic and a lesson on objects, which seemed to Mrs. Kelland the most arrant nonsense in the world, and to her well-broken scholars was about as interesting as the humming of a blue-bottle fly; but it was poor Lovedy's one enjoyment, though making such havoc of her work that it was always expiated by extra hours, not on her pillow, but at it.
These visits of Rachel were considered to encourage the Kelland refractoriness, and it was officially intimated that it would be wise to discontinue them, and that "it was thought better" to withdraw from Mrs. Kelland all that direct patronage of her trade, by which the ladies had enabled her to be in some degree independent of the middle-men, who absorbed so much of the profit from the workers. Grace and Rachel, sufficiently old inhabitants to remember the terrible wreck that had left her a struggling widow, felt this a hard, not to say a vindictive decision. They had long been a kind of agents for disposing of her wares at a distance; and, feeling that the woman had received provocation, Grace was not disposed to give her up, while Rachel loudly averred that neither Mr. Touchett nor any of his ladies had any right to interfere, and she should take no notice.
"But," said Grace, "can we run counter to our clergyman's direct wishes?"
"Yes, when he steps out of his province. My dear Grace, you grew up in the days of curatolatry, but it won't do; men are fallible even when they preach in a surplice, and you may be thankful to me that you and Fanny are not both led along in a string in the train of Mr. Touchett's devotees!"
"I wish I knew what was right to do," said Grace, quietly, and she remained wishing it after Rachel had said a great deal more; but the upshot of it was, that one day when Grace and Fanny were walking together on the esplanade, they met Mr. Touchett, and Grace said to him, "We have been thinking it over, and we thought, perhaps, you would not wish us not to give any orders to Mrs. Kelland. I know she has behaved very ill; but I don't see how she is to get on, and she has this child on her hands."
"I know," said Mr. Touchett, "but really it was flagrant."
"Oh," said Lady Temple, gently, "I dare say she didn't mean it, and you could not be hard on a widow."
"Well," said Mr. Touchett, "Miss Brown was very much put out, and—and—it is a great pity about the child, but I never thought myself that such strong measures would do any good."
"Then you will not object to her being employed?"
"No, not at all. From a distance, it is not the same thing as close at home; it won't be an example."
"Thank you," said Grace; and "I am so glad," said Lady Temple; and Mr. Touchett went on his way, lightened of his fear of having let his zealous coadjutors oppress the hard-working, and far more brightened by the sweet smile of requital, but all the time doubtful whether he had been weak. As to the victory, Rachel only laughed, and said, "If it made Grace more comfortable, it was well, except for that acknowledgment of Mr. Touchett's jurisdiction."
A few days after, Rachel made her appearance in Mackerel Lane, and announced her intention of consulting Ermine Williams under seal of secrecy. "I have an essay that I wish you to judge of before I send it to the 'Traveller.'"
"Indeed!" said Ermine, her colour rising. "Would it not be better—"
"Oh, I know what you mean, but don't scruple on that score. At my age, with a mother like mine, it is simply to avoid teasing and excitement that I am silent."
"I was going to say I was hardly a fair—"
"Because of your different opinions? But those go for nothing. You are a worthy antagonist, and enter into my views as my mother and sister cannot do, even while you oppose them."
"But I don't think I can help you, even if—"
"I don't want help; I only want you to judge of the composition. In fact, I read it to you that I may hear it myself."
Ermine resigned herself.
"'Curatolatry is a species—'"
"I beg your pardon."
"Curatolatry. Ah! I thought that would attract attention."
"But I am afraid the scholars would fall foul of it."
"Why, have not they just made Mariolatry?"
"Yes; but they are very severe on hybrids between Latin and Greek."
"It is not worth while to boggle at trifles when one has an expressive term," said Rachel; "if it turns into English, that is all that is wanted."
"Would it not be rather a pity if it should turn into English? Might it not be hard to brand with a contemptuous name what does more good than harm?"
"That sickly mixture of flirtation and hero worship, with a religious daub as a salve to the conscience."
"Laugh it down, and what do you leave? In Miss Austen's time silly girls ran to balls after militiamen, now, if they run to schools and charities more for the curate's sake than they quite know, is not the alternative better?"
"It is greater humbug," said Rachel. "But I knew you would not agree, at least beforehand, it is appreciation that I want."
Never did Madame de Genlis make a cleverer hit than in the reading of the Genius Phanor's tragedy in the Palace of Truth. Comically absurd as the inconsistency is of transporting the lecture of a Parisian academician into an enchanted palace, full of genii and fairies of the remotest possible connexion with the Arab jinn, the whole is redeemed by the truth to nature of the sole dupe in the Palace of Truth being the author reading his own works. Ermine was thinking of him all the time. She was under none of the constraint of Phanor's auditors, though she carried a perpetual palace of truth about with her; she would not have had either fears or compunctions in criticising, if she could. The paper was in the essay style, between argument and sarcasm, something after the model of the Invalid's Letters; but it was scarcely lightly touched enough, the irony was wormwood, the gravity heavy and sententious, and where there was a just thought or happy hit, it seemed to travel in a road-waggon, and be lost in the rumbling of the wheels. Ermine did not restrain a smile, half of amusement, half of relief, at the self-antidote the paper contained; but the smile passed with the authoress as a tribute to her satire.
"In this age," she said, "we must use those lighter weapons of wit, or no one will attend."
"Perhaps," said Ermine, "if I approve your object, I should tell you you don't use them lightly."
"Ah! but I know you don't approve it. You are not lay woman enough to be impartial, and you belong to the age that was trying the experiment of the hierarchy modified: I to that which has found it will not do. But at least you understand my view; I have made out my case."
"Yes, I understand your view; but—"
"You don't sympathize. Of course not; but when it receives its full weight from the printer's bands, you will see that it will tell. That bit about the weak tea fumes I thought of afterwards, and I am afraid I did not read it well."
"I remember it; but forgive me if I say first I think the whole is rather too—too lengthy to take."
"Oh, that is only because manuscript takes long to read aloud. I counted the words, so I can't be mistaken, at least I collated twenty lines, and multiplied; and it is not so long as the Invalid's last letter about systematic reading."
"And then comes my question again, Is good to come of it?"
"That I can't expect you to see at this time; but it is to be the beginning of a series, exposing the fallacies of woman's life as at present conducted; and out of these I mean to point the way to more consistent, more independent, better combined exertion. If I can make myself useful with my pen, it will compensate for the being debarred from so many more obvious outlets. I should like to have as much influence over people's minds as that Invalid for instance, and by earnest effort I know I shall attain it."
"I—I—" half-laughing and blushing, "I hope you will, for I know you would wish to use it for good; but, to speak plainly, I doubt about the success of this effort, or—or if it ought to succeed."
"Yes, I know you do," said Rachel. "No one ever can judge of a manuscript. You have done all I wished you to do, and I value your sincerity. Of course I did not expect praise, since the more telling it is on the opposite side, the less you could like it. I saw you appreciated it."
And Rachel departed, while Rose crept up to her aunt, asking, "Aunt Ermine, why do you look so very funny? It was very tiresome. Are not you glad it is over?"
"I was thinking, Rose, what a difficult language plain English is sometimes."
"What, Miss Rachel's? I couldn't understand one bit of her long story, except that she did not like weak tea."
"It was my own that I meant," said Ermine. "But, Rose, always remember that a person who stands plain speaking from one like me has something very noble and generous in her. Were you here all the time, Rosie? I don't wonder you were tired."
"No, Aunt Ermine, I went and told Violetta and Augustus a fairy tale out of my own head."
"Indeed; and how did they like it?"
"Violetta looked at me all the time, and Augustus gave three winks, so I think he liked it."
"Appreciated it!" said Aunt Ermine.
CHAPTER IV. THE HERO.
"And which is Lucy's? Can it be That puny fop, armed cap-a-pie, Who loves in the saloon to show The arms that never knew a foe."—SCOTT.
"My lady's compliments, ma'am, and she would he much obliged if you would remain till she comes home," was Coombe's reception of Alison. "She is gone to Avoncester with Master Temple and Master Francis."
"Gone to Avoncester!" exclaimed Rachel, who had walked from church to Myrtlewood with Alison.
"Mamma is gone to meet the Major!" cried three of the lesser boys, rushing upon them in full cry; then Leoline, facing round, "Not the major, he is lieutenant-colonel now—Colonel Keith, hurrah!"
"What—what do you mean? Speak rationally, Leoline, if you can."
"My lady sent a note to the Homestead this morning," explained Coombe. "She heard this morning that Colonel Keith intended to arrive to-day, and took the young gentlemen with her to meet him."
Rachel could hardly refrain from manifesting her displeasure, and bluntly asked what time Lady Temple was likely to be at home.
"It depended," Coombe said, "upon the train; it was not certain whether Colonel Keith would come by the twelve or the two o'clock train."
And Rachel was going to turn sharply round, and dash home with the tidings, when Alison arrested her with the question—
"And who is Colonel Keith?"
Rachel was too much wrapped up in her own view to hear the trembling of the voice, and answered, "Colonel Keith! why, the Major! You have not been here so long without hearing of the Major?"
"Yes, but I did not know. Who is he?" And a more observant person would have seen the governess's gasping effort to veil her eagerness under her wonted self-control.
"Don't you know who the Major is?" shouted Leoline. "He is our military secretary."
"That's the sum total of my knowledge," said Rachel, "I don't understand his influence, nor know where he was picked up."
"Nor his regiment?"
"He is not a regimental officer; he is on our staff," said Leoline, whose imagination could not attain to an earlier condition than "on our staff."
"I shall go home, then," said Rachel, "and see if there is any explanation there."
"I shall ask the Major not to let Aunt Rachel come here," observed Hubert, as she departed; it was well it was not before.
"Leoline," anxiously asked Alison, "can you tell me the Major's name?"
"Colonel Keith—Lieutenant-Colonel Keith," was all the answer.
"I meant his Christian name, my dear."
"Only little boys have Christian names!" they returned, and Alison was forced to do her best to tame herself and them to the duties of the long day of anticipation so joyous on their part, so full of confusion and bewildered anxiety on her own. She looked in vain, half stealthily, as often before, for a recent Army List or Peerage. Long ago she had lost the Honourable Colin A. Keith from among the officers of the —th Highlanders, and though in the last Peerage she had laid hands on he was still among the surviving sons of the late Lord Keith, of Gowanbrae, the date had not gone back far enough to establish that he had not died in the Indian war. It was fear that predominated with her, there were many moments when she would have given worlds to be secure that the newcomer was not the man she thought of, who, whether constant or inconstant, could bring nothing but pain and disturbance to the calm tenour of her sister's life. Everything was an oppression to her; the children, in their wild, joyous spirits and gladsome inattention, tried her patience almost beyond her powers; the charge of the younger ones in their mother's absence was burthensome, and the delay in returning to her sister became well-nigh intolerable, when she figured to herself Rachel Curtis going down to Ermine with the tidings of Colonel Keith's arrival, and her own discontent at his influence with her cousin. Would that she had spoken a word of warning; yet that might have been merely mischievous, for the subject was surely too delicate for Rachel to broach with so recent a friend. But Rachel had bad taste for anything! That the little boys did not find Miss Williams very cross that day was an effect of the long habit of self-control, and she could hardly sit still under the additional fret, when, just as tea was spread for the school-room party, in walked Miss Rachel, and sat herself down, in spite of Hubert, who made up a most coaxing, entreating face, as he said, "Please, Aunt Rachel, doesn't Aunt Grace want you very much!"
"Not at all. Why, Hubert?"
"Oh, if you would only go away, and not spoil our fun when the Major comes."
For once Rachel did laugh, but she did not take the hint, and Alison obtained only the satisfaction of hearing that she had at least not been in Mackarel Lane. The wheels sounded on the gravel, out rushed the boys; Alison and Rachel sat in strange, absolute silence, each forgetful of the other, neither guarding her own looks, nor remarking her companion's. Alison's lips were parted by intense listening; Rachel's teeth were set to receive her enemy. There was a chorus of voices in the hall, and something about tea and coming in warned both to gather up their looks before Lady Temple had opened the door, and brought in upon them not one foe, but two! Was Rachel seeing double? Hardly that, for one was tall, bald, and bearded, not dangerously young, but on that very account the more dangerously good-looking; and the other was almost a boy, slim and light, just of the empty young officer type. Here, too, was Fanny, flushed, excited, prettier and brighter than Rachel had seen her at all, waving an introduction with head and hand; and the boys hanging round the Major with deafening exclamations of welcome, in which they were speedily joined by the nursery detachment. Those greetings, those observations on growth and looks, those glad, eager questions and answers, were like the welcome of an integral part of the family; it was far more intimate and familiar than had been possible with the Curtises after the long separation, and it was enough to have made the two spectators feel out of place, if such a sensation had been within Rachel's capacity, or if Alison had not been engaged with the tea. Lady Temple made a few explanations, sotto voce, to Alison, whom she always treated as though in dread of not being sufficiently considerate. "I do hope the children have been good; I knew you would not mind; I could not wait to see you, or I should have been too late to meet the train, and then he would have come by the coach; and it is such a raw east wind. He must be careful in this climate."
"How warm and sunshiny it has been all day," said Rachel, by way of opposition to some distant echo of this whisper.
"Sunshiny, but treacherous," answered Colonel Keith; "there are cold gusts round corners. This must be a very sheltered nook of the coast."
"Quite a different zone from Avoncester," said the youth.
"Yes, delightful. I told you it was just what would suit you," added Fanny, to the colonel.
"Some winds are very cold here," interposed Rachel. "I always pity people who are imposed upon to think it a Mentone near home. They are choking our churchyard."
"Very inconsiderate of them," muttered the young man.
"But what made you come home so late, Fanny?" said Rachel.
Alison suspected a slight look of wonder on the part of both the officers at hearing their general's wife thus called to account; but Fanny, taking it as a matter of course, answered, "We found that the-th was at Avoncester. I had no idea of it, and they did not know I was here; so I went to call upon Mrs. Hammond, and Colonel Keith went to look for Alick, and we have brought him home to dine."
Fanny took it for granted that Rachel must know who Alick was, but she was far from doing so, though she remembered that the —th had been her uncle's regiment, and had been under Sir Stephen Temple's command in India at the time of the mutiny. The thought of Fanny's lapsing into military society was shocking to her. The boys were vociferating about boats, ponies, and all that had been deferred till the Major's arrival, and he was answering them kindly, but hushing the extra outcry less by word than sign, and his own lowered voice and polished manner—a manner that excessively chafed her as a sort of insult to the blunt, rapid ways that she considered as sincere and unaffected, a silkiness that no doubt had worked on the honest, simple general, as it was now working on the weak young widow. Anything was better than leaving her to such influence, and in pursuance of the intention that Rachel had already announced at home, she invited herself to stay to dinner; and Fanny eagerly thanked her, for making it a little less dull for Colonel Keith and Alick. It was so good to come down and help. Certainly Fanny was an innocent creature, provided she was not spoilt, and it was a duty to guard her innocence.
Alison Williams escaped to her home, sure of nothing but that her sister must not be allowed to share her uncertainties; and Lady Temple and her guests sat down to dinner. Rachel meant to have sat at the bottom and carved, as belonging to the house; but Fanny motioned the Colonel to the place, observing, "It is so natural to see you there! One only wants poor Captain Dent at the other end. Do you know whether he has his leave?"
Wherewith commenced a discussion of military friends—who had been heard of from Australia, who had been met in England, who was promoted, who married, who retired, &c., and all the quarters of the-th since its return from India two years ago; Fanny eagerly asking questions and making remarks, quite at home and all animation, absolutely a different being from the subdued, meek little creature that Rachel had hitherto seen. Attempts were made to include Miss Curtis in the conversation by addressing anecdotes to her, and asking if she knew the places named; but she had been to none, and the three old friends quickly fell into the swing of talk about what interested them. Once, however, she came down on them with, "What conclusion have you formed upon female emigration?"
"'His sister she went beyond the seas, And died an old maid among black savagees.'
"That's the most remarkable instance of female emigration on record, isn't it?" observed Alick.
"What; her dying an old maid?" said Colonel Keith. "I am not sure. Wholesale exportations of wives are spoiling the market."
"I did not mean marriage," said Rachel, stoutly. "I am particularly anxious to know whether there is a field open to independent female labour."
"All the superior young women seemed to turn nurserymaids," said the Colonel.
"Oh," interposed Fanny, "do you remember that nice girl of ours who would marry that Orderly-Sergeant O'Donoghoe? I have had a letter from her in such distress."
"Of course, the natural termination," said Alick, in his lazy voice.
"And I thought you would tell me how to manage sending her some help," proceeded Fanny.
"I could have helped you, Fanny. Won't an order do it?"
"Not quite," said Fanny, a shade of a smile playing on her lip. "It is whether to send it through one of the officers or not. If Captain Lee is with the regiment, I know he would take care of it for her."
So they plunged into another regiment, and Rachel decided that nothing was so wearisome as to hear triflers talk shop.
There was no opportunity of calling Fanny to order after dinner, for she went off on her progress to all the seven cribs, and was only just returning from them when the gentlemen came in, and then she made room for the younger beside her on the sofa, saying, "Now, Alick, I do so want to hear about poor, dear little Bessie;" and they began so low and confidentially, that Rachel wondered if her alarms wore to be transfered from the bearded colonel to the dapper boy, or if, in very truth, she must deem poor Fanny a general coquette. Besides, a man must be contemptible who wore gloves at so small a party, when she did not.
She had been whiling away the time of Fanny's absence by looking over the books on the table, and she did not regard the present company sufficiently to desist on their account. Colonel Keith began to turn over some numbers of the "Traveller" that lay near him, and presently looked up, and said, "Do you know who is the writer of this?"
"What is it? Ah! one of the Invalid's essays. They strike every one; but I fancy the authorship is a great secret."
"You do not know it?"
"No, I wish I did. Which of them are you reading? 'Country Walks.' That is not one that I care about, it is a mere hash of old recollections; but there are some very sensible and superior ones, so that I have heard it sometimes doubted whether they are man's or woman's writing. For my part, I think them too earnest to be a man's; men always play with their subject."
"Oh, yes," said Fanny, "I am sure only a lady could have written anything so sweet as that about flowers in a sick-room; it so put me in mind of the lovely flowers you used to bring me one at a time, when I was ill at Cape Town."
There was no more sense to be had after those three once fell upon their reminiscences.
That night, after having betrayed her wakefulness by a movement in her bed, Alison Williams heard her sister's voice, low and steady, saying, "Ailie, dear, be it what it may, guessing is worse than certainty."
"Oh, Ermine, I hoped—I know nothing—I have nothing to tell."
"You dread something," said Ermine; "you have been striving for unconcern all the evening, my poor dear, but surely you know, Ailie, that nothing is so bad while we share it."
"And I have frightened you about nothing."
"Nothing! nothing about Edward?"
"Oh, no, no!"
"And no one has made you uncomfortable?"
"Then there is only one thing that it can be, Ailie, and you need not fear to tell me that. I always knew that if he lived I must be prepared for it, and you would not have hesitated to tell me of his death."
"It is not that, indeed it is not, Ermine, it is only this—that I found to-day that Lady Temple's major has the same name."
"But you said she was come home. You must have seen him."
"Yes, but I should not know him. I had only seen him once, remember, twelve years ago, and when I durst not look at him."
"At least," said Ermine, quickly, "you can tell me what you saw to-day."
"A Scotch face, bald head, dark beard, grizzled hair."
"Yes I am grey, and he was five years older; but he used not to have a Scotch face. Can you tell me about his eyes?"
"Dark," I think.
"They were very dark blue, almost black. Time and climate must have left them alone. You may know him by those eyes, Ailie. And you could not make out anything about him?"
"No, not even his Christian name nor his regiment. I had only the little ones and Miss Rachel to ask, and they knew nothing. I wanted to keep this from you till I was sure, but you always find me out."
"Do you think I couldn't see the misery you were in all the evening, poor child? But now you have had it out, sleep, and don't be distressed."
"But, Ermine, if you—"
"My dear, I am thankful that nothing is amiss with you or Edward. For the rest, there is nothing but patience. Now, not another word; you must not lose your sleep, nor take away my chance of any."
How much the sisters slept they did not confide to one another, but when they rose, Alison shook her head at her sister's heavy eyelids, and Ermine retorted with a reproachful smile at certain dark tokens of sleeplessness under Alison's eyes.
"No, not the flowered flimsiness, please," she said, in the course of her toilette, "let me have the respectable grey silk." And next she asked for a drawer, whence she chose a little Nuremberg horn brooch for her neck. "I know it is very silly," she said, "but I can't quite help it. Only one question, Ailie, that I thought of too late. Did he hear your name?"
"I think not, Lady Temple named nobody. But why did you not ask me last night?"
"I thought beginning to talk again would destroy your chance of sleep, and we had resolved to stop."
"And, Ermine, if it be, what shall I do?"
"Do as you feel right at the moment," said Ermine, after a moment's pause. "I cannot tell how it may be. I have been thinking over what you told me about the Major and Lady Temple."
"Oh, Ermine, what a reproof this is for that bit of gossip."
"Not at all, my dear, the warning may be all the better for me," said Ermine, with a voice less steady than her words. "It is not what, under the circumstances, I could think likely in the Colin whom I knew; but were it indeed so, then, Ailie, you had better say nothing about me, unless he found you out. We would get employment elsewhere."
"And I must leave you to the suspense all day."
"Much better so. The worst thing we could do would be to go on talking about it. It is far better for me to be left with my dear little unconscious companion."
Alison tried to comfort herself with this belief through the long hours of the morning, during which she only heard that mamma and Colonel Keith were gone to the Homestead, and she saw no one till she came forth with her troop to the midday meal.
And there, at sight of Lady Temple's content and calm, satisfied look, as though she were once more in an accustomed atmosphere, and felt herself and the boys protected, and of the Colonel's courteous attention to her and affectionate authority towards her sons, it was an absolute pang to recognise the hue of eye described by Ermine; but still Alison tried to think them generic Keith eyes, till at length, amid the merry chatter of her pupils, came an appeal to "Miss Williams," and then came a look that thrilled through her, the same glance that she had met for one terrible moment twelve years before, and renewing the same longing to shrink from all sight or sound. How she kept her seat and continued to attend to the children she never knew, but the voices sounded like a distant Babel; and she did not know whether she were most relieved, disappointed, or indignant when she left the dining-room to take the boys for their walk. Oh, that Ermine could be hid from all knowledge of what would be so much harder to bear than the death in which she had long believed!
Harder to bear? Yes, Ermine had already been passing through a heart sickness that made the morning like an age. Her resolute will had struggled hard for composure, cheerfulness, and occupation; but the little watchful niece had seen through the endeavour, and had made her own to the sleepless night and the headache. The usual remedy was a drive in a wheeled chair, and Rose was so urgent to be allowed to go and order one, that Ermine at last yielded, partly because she had hardly energy enough to turn her refusal graciously, partly because she would not feel herself staying at home for the vague hope and when the child was out of sight, she had the comfort of clasping her hands, and ceasing to restrain her countenance, while she murmured, "Oh, Colin, Colin, are you what you were twelve years back? Is this all dream, all delusion, and waste of feeling, while you are lying in your Indian grave, more mine than you can ever be living be as it may,—
"'Calm me, my God, and keep me calm While these hot breezes blow; Be like the night dew's cooling balm Upon earth's fevered brow. Calm me, my God, and keep me calm, Soft resting on Thy breast; Soothe me with holy hymn and psalm, And bid my spirit rest.'"
CHAPTER V. MILITARY SOCIETY.
"My trust Like a good parent did beget of him A falsehood in its contrary as great As my trust was, which had indeed no limit."—TEMPEST.
Rose found the wheeled chair, to which her aunt gave the preference, was engaged, and shaking her little discreet head at "the shakey chair" and "the stuffy chair," she turned pensively homeward, and was speeding down Mackarel Lane, when she was stayed by the words, "My little girl!" and the grandest and most bearded gentleman she had ever seen, demanded, "Can you tell me if Miss Williams lives here?"
"My aunt?" exclaimed Rose, gazing up with her pretty, frightened-fawn look.
"Indeed!" he exclaimed, looking eagerly at her, "then you are the child of a very old friend of mine! Did you never hear him speak of his old school-fellow, Colin Keith?"
"Papa is away," said Rose, turning back her neck to get a full view of his face from under the brim of her hat.
"'Will you run on and ask your aunt if she would like to see me?" he added.
Thus it was that Ermine heard the quick patter of the child's steps, followed by the manly tread, and the words sounded in her ears, "Aunt Ermine, there's a gentleman, and he has a great beard, and he says he is papa's old friend! And here he is."
Ermine's beaming eyes as absolutely met the new comer as though she had sprung forward. "I thought you would come," she said, in a voice serene with exceeding bliss.
"I have found you at last," as their hands clasped; and they gazed into each other's faces in the untroubled repose of the meeting, exclusive of all else.
Ermine was the first to break silence. "Oh, Colin, you look worn and altered."
"You don't; you have kept your sunbeam face for me with the dear brown glow I never thought to have seen again. Why did they tell me you were an invalid, Ermine?"
"Have you not seen Alison?" she asked, supposing he would have known all.
"I saw her, but did not hear her name, till just now at luncheon, when our looks met, and I saw it was not another disappointment."
"And she knows you are come to me?"
"It was not in me to speak to her till I had recovered you! One can forgive, but not forget."
"You will do more when you know her, and how she has only lived and worked for me, dear Ailie, and suffered far more than I—"
"While I was suffering from being unable to do anything but live for you," he repeated, taking up her words; "but that is ended now—" and as she made a negative motion of her head, "have you not trusted to me?"
"I have thought you not living," she said; "the last I know was your letter to dear Lady Alison, written from the hospital at Cape Town, after your wound. She was ill even when it came, and she could only give it to Ailie for me."
"Dear good aunt, she got into trouble with all the family for our sake; and when she was gone no one would give me any tidings of you."
"It was her last disappointment that you were not sent home on sick leave. Did you get well too fast?"
"Not exactly; but my father, or rather, I believe, my brother, intimated that I should be welcome only if I had laid aside a certain foolish fancy, and as lying on my back had not conduced to that end, I could only say I would stay where I was."
"And was it worse for you? I am sure, in spite of all that tanned skin, that your health has suffered. Ought you to have come home?"
"No, I do not know that London surgeons could have got at the ball," he said, putting his hand on his chest, "and it gives me no trouble in general. I was such a spectacle when I returned to duty, that good old Sir Stephen Temple, always a proverb for making his staff a refuge for the infirm, made me his aide-de-camp, and was like a father to me."
"Now I see why I never could find your name in any list of the officers in the moves of the regiment! I gave you quite up when I saw no Keith among those that came home from India. I did believe then that you were the Colonel Alexander Keith whose death I had seen mentioned, though I had long trusted to his not being honourable, nor having your first name."
"Ah! he succeeded to the command after Lady Temple's father. A kind friend to me he was, and he left me in charge of his son and daughter. A very good and gallant fellow is that young Alick. I must bring him to see you some day—"
"Oh! I saw his name; I remember! I gloried in the doings of a Keith; but I was afraid he had died, as there was no such name with the regiment when it came home."
"No, he was almost shattered to pieces; but Sir Stephen sent him up the hills to be nursed by Lady Temple and her mother, and he was sent home as soon as he could be moved. I was astonished to see how entirely he had recovered."
"Then you went through all that Indian war?"
"Yes; with Sir Stephen."
"You must show me all your medals! How much you have to tell me! And then—?"
"Just when the regiment was coming home, my dear old chief was appointed to the command in Australia, and insisted on my coming with him as military secretary. He had come to depend on me so much that I could not well leave him; and in five years there was the way to promotion and to claiming you at once. We were just settled there, when what I heard made me long to have decided otherwise, but I could not break with him then. I wrote to Edward, but had my letter returned to me."
"No wonder; Edward was abroad, all connexion broken."
"I wrote to Beauchamp, and he knew nothing, and I could only wait till my chief's time should be up. You know how it was cut short, and how the care of the poor little widow detained me till she was fit for the voyage. I came and sought you in vain in town. I went home, and found my brother lonely and dispirited. He has lost his son, his daughters are married, and he and I are all the brothers left out of the six! He was urgent that I should come and live with him and marry. I told him I would, with all my heart, when I had found you, and he saw I was too much in earnest to be opposed. Then I went to Beauchamp, but Harry knew nothing about any one. I tried to find out your sister and Dr. Long, but heard they were gone to Belfast."
"Yes, they lost a good deal in the crash, and did not like retrenching among their neighbours, so they went to Ireland, and there they have a flourishing practice."
"I thought myself on my way there," he said, smiling; "only I had first to settle Lady Temple, little guessing who was her treasure of a governess! Last night I had nearly opened, on another false scent; I fell in with a description that I could have sworn was yours, of the heather behind the parsonage. I made a note of the publisher in case all else had failed."
"I'm glad you knew the scent of the thyme!"
"Then it was no false scent?"
"One must live, and I was thankful to do anything to lighten Ailie's burthen. I wrote down that description that I might live in the place in fancy; and one day, when the contribution was wanted and I was hard up for ideas, I sent it, though I was loth to lay open that bit of home and heart."
"Well it might give me the sense of meeting you! And in other papers of the series I traced your old self more ripened."
"The editor was a friend of Edward's, and in our London days he asked me to write letters on things in general, and when I said I saw the world through a key-hole, he answered that a circumscribed view gained in distinctness. Most kind and helpful he has been, and what began between sport and need to say out one's mind has come to be a resource for which we are very thankful. He sends us books for reviewal, and that is pleasant and improving, not to say profitable."
"Little did I think you were in such straits!" he said, stroking the child's head, and waiting as though her presence were a restraint on inquiries, but she eagerly availed herself of the pause. "Aunt Ermine, please what shall I say about the chairs? Will you have the nice one and Billy when they come home? I was to take the answer, only you did talk so that I could not ask!"
"Thank you, my dear; I don't want chairs nor anything else while I can talk so," she answered, smiling. "You had better take a run in the garden when you come back;" and Rose replied with a nod of assent that made the colonel smile and say, "Good-bye then, my sweet Lady Discretion, some day we will be better acquainted."
"Dear child," said Ermine, "she is our great blessing, and some day I trust will be the same to her dear father. Oh, Colin! it is too much to hope that you have not believed what you must have heard! And yet you wrote to him."
"Nay, I could not but feel great distrust of what I heard, since I was also told that his sisters were unconvinced; and besides, I had continually seen him at school the victim of other people's faults."
"This is best of all," exclaimed Ermine, with glistening eyes, and hand laid upon his; "it is the most comfortable word I have heard since it happened. Yes, indeed, many a time before I saw you, had I heard of 'Keith' as the friend who saw him righted. Oh, Colin! thanks, thanks for believing in him more than for all!"
"Not believing, but knowing," he answered—"knowing both you and Edward. Besides, is it not almost invariable that the inventor is ruined by his invention—a Prospero by nature?"
"It was not the invention," she answered; "that throve as long as my father lived."
"Yes, he was an excellent man of business."
"And he thought the concern so secure that there was no danger in embarking all the available capital of the family in it, and it did bring us in a very good income."
"I remember that it struck me that the people at home would find that they had made a mistake after all, and missed a fortune for me! It was an invention for diminishing the fragility of glass under heat; was it not?"
"Yes, and the manufacture was very prosperous, so that my father was quite at ease about us. After his death we made a home for Edward in London, and looked after him when he used to be smitten with some new idea and forgot all sublunary matters. When he married we went to live at Richmond, and had his dear little wife very much with us, for she was a delicate tender creature, half killed by London. In process of time he fell in with a man named Maddox, plausible and clever, who became a sort of manager, especially while Edward was in his trances of invention; and at all times knew more about his accounts than he did himself. Nothing but my father's authority had ever made him really look into them, and this man took them all off his hands. There was a matter about the glass that Edward was bent on ascertaining, and he went to study the manufacture in Bohemia, taking his wife with him, and leaving Rose with us. Shortly after, Dr. Long and Harry Beauchamp received letters asking for a considerable advance, to be laid out on the materials that this improvement would require. Immediately afterwards came the crash."
"Exactly what I heard. Of course the letters were written in ignorance of what was impending."
"Colin, they were never written at all by Edward! He denied all knowledge of them. Alison saw Dr. Long's, most ingeniously managed—foreign paper and all—but she could swear to the forgery—"
"You suspect this Maddox?"
"Most strongly! He knew the state of the business; Edward did not. And he had a correspondence that would have enabled so ingenious a person easily to imitate Edward's letters. I do not wonder at their having been taken in; but how Julia—how Harry Beauchamp could believe—what they do believe. Oh, Colin! it will not do to think about it!"
"Oh, that I had been at home! Were no measures taken?"
"Alas! alas! we urged Edward to come home and clear himself; but that poor little wife of his was terrified beyond measure, imagined prisons and trials. She was unable to move, and he could not leave her; she took from him an unhappy promise not to put himself in what she fancied danger from the law, and then died, leaving him a baby that did not live a day. He was too broken-hearted to care for vindicating himself, and no one-no one would do it for him!"
Colonel Keith frowned and clenched the hand that lay in his grasp till it was absolute pain, but pain that was a relief to feel. "Madness, madness!" he said. "Miserable! But how was it at home—? Did this Maddox stand his ground?"
"Yes, if he had fled, all would have been clear, but he doctored the accounts his own way, and quite satisfied Dr. Long and Harry. He showed Edward's receipt for the L6000 that had been advanced, and besides, there was a large sum not accounted for, which was, of course, supposed to have been invested abroad by Edward—some said gambled away—as if he had not had a regular hatred of all sorts of games."
"Edward with his head in the clouds! One notion is as likely as the other.—Then absolutely nothing was done!"
"Nothing! The bankruptcy was declared, the whole affair broken up; and certainly if every one had not known Edward to be the most heedless of men, the confusion would have justified them in thinking him a dishonest one. Things had been done in his name by Maddox that might have made a stranger think him guilty of the rest, but to those who had ever known his abstraction, and far more his real honour and uprightness, nothing could have been plainer."
"It all turned upon his absence."
"Yes, he must have borne the brunt of what had been done in his name, I know; that would have been bad enough, but in a court of justice, his whole character would have been shown, and besides, a prosecution for forgery of his receipt would have shown what Maddox was, sufficiently to exculpate him."
"And you say the losers by the deception would not believe in it?"
"No, they only shook their heads at our weak sisterly affection."
"I wish I could see one of those letters. Where is Maddox now?"
"I cannot tell. He certainly did not go away immediately after the settlement of accounts, but it has not been possible to us to keep up a knowledge of his movements, or something might have turned up to justify Edward. Oh, what it is to be helpless women! You are the very first person, Colin, who has not looked at me pityingly, like a creature to be forborne with an undeniable delusion!"
"They must be very insolent people, then, to look at that brow and eyes, and think even sisterly love could blind them," he said. "Yes, Ermine, I was certain that unless Edward were more changed than I could believe, there must be some such explanation. You have never seen him since?"
"No, he was too utterly broken by the loss of his wife to feel anything else. For a long time we heard nothing, and that was the most dreadful time of all! Then he wrote from a little German town, where he was getting his bread as a photographer's assistant. And since that he has cast about the world, till just now he has some rather interesting employment at the mines in the Oural Mountains, the first thing he has really seemed to like or care for."
"The Oural Mountains! that is out of reach. I wish I could see him. One might find some means of clearing him. What directed your suspicion to Maddox?"
"Chiefly that the letters professed to have been sent in a parcel to him to be posted from the office. If it had been so, Edward and Lucy would certainly have written to us at the same time. I could have shown, too, that Maddox had written to me the day before to ascertain where Edward was, so as to be sure of the date. It was a little country village, and I made a blunder in copying the spelling from Lucy's writing. Ailie found that very blunder repeated in Dr. Long's letter, and we showed him that Edward did not write it so. Besides, before going abroad, Edward had lost the seal-ring with his crest, which you gave him. You remember the Saxon's head?"
"I remember! You all took it much to heart that the engraver had made it a Saracen's head, and not a long-haired Saxon."
"Well, Edward had renewed the ring, and taken care to make it a Saxon. Now Ailie could get no one to believe her, but she is certain that the letter was sealed with the old Saracen not the new Saxon. But—but—if you had but been there—"
"Tell me you wished for me, Ermine."
"I durst not wish anything about you," she said, looking up through a mist of tears.
"And you, what fixed you here?"
"An old servant of ours had married and settled here, and had written to us of her satisfaction in finding that the clergyman was from Hereford. We thought he would recommend Ailie as daily governess to visitors, and that Sarah would be a comfortable landlady. It has answered very well; Rose deserves her name far more than when we brought her here, and it is wonderful how much better I have been since doctors have become a mere luxury."
"Do you, can you really mean that you are supporting yourselves?"
"All but twenty-five pounds a year, from a legacy to us, that Mr. Beauchamp would not let them touch. But it has been most remarkable, Colin," she said, with the dew in her eyes, "how we have never wanted our daily bread, and how happy we have been! If it had not been for Edward, this would in many ways have been our happiest time. Since the old days the little frets have told less, and Ailie has been infinitely happier and brighter since she has had to work instead of only to watch me. Ah, Colin, must I not own to having been happy? Indeed it was very much because peace had come when the suspense had sunk into belief that I might think of you as—, where you would not be grieved by the sight of what I am now—"
As she spoke, a knock, not at the house, but at the room door, made them both start, and impel their chairs to a more ordinary distance, just as Rachel Curtis made her entrance, extremely amazed to find, not Mr. Touchett, but a much greater foe and rival in that unexpected quarter. Ermine, the least disconcerted, was the first to speak. "You are surprised to find a visitor here," she said, "and indeed only now, did we find out that 'our military secretary,' as your little cousins say, was our clear old squire's nephew."
There was a ring of gladness in the usually patient voice that struck even Rachel, though she was usually too eager to be observant, but she was still unready with talk for the occasion, and Ermine continued: "We had heard so much of the Major before-hand, that we had a sort of Jupiter-like expectation of the coming man. I am not sure that I shall not go on expecting a mythic major!"
Rachel, never understanding playfulness, thought this both audacious and unnecessary, and if it had come from any one else, would have administered a snub, but she felt the invalid sacred from her weapons.
"Have you ever seen the boys?" asked Colonel Keith. "I am rather proud of Conrade, my pupil; he is so chivalrous towards his mother."
"Alison has brought down a division or two to show me. How much alike they are."
"Exactly alike, and excessively unruly and unmanageable," said Rachel. "I pity your sister."
"More unmanageable in appearance than in reality," said the colonel: "there's always a little trial of strength against the hand over them, and they yield when they find it is really a hand. They were wonderfully good and considerate when it was an object to keep the house quiet."
Rachel would not encourage him to talk of Lady Temple, so she turned to Ermine on the business that had brought her, collecting and adapting old clothes for emigrants.—It was not exactly gentlemen's pastime, and Ermine tried to put it aside and converse, but Rachel never permitted any petty consideration to interfere with a useful design, and as there was a press of time for the things, she felt herself justified in driving the intruder off the field and outstaying him. She succeeded; he recollected the desire of the boys that he should take them to inspect the pony at the "Jolly Mariner," and took leave with—"I shall see you to-morrow."
"You knew him all the time!" exclaimed Rachel, pausing in her unfolding of the Master Temples' ship wardrobe. "Why did you not say so?"
"We did not know his name. He was always the 'Major.'"
"Who, and what is he?" demanded Rachel, as she knelt before her victim, fixing those great prominent eyes, so like those of Red Riding Hood's grandmother, that Ermine involuntarily gave a backward impulse to her wheeled chair, as she answered the readiest thing that occurred to her,—"He is brother to Lord Keith of Gowan-brae."
"Oh," said Rachel, kneeling on meditatively, "that accounts for it. So much the worse. The staff is made up of idle honourables."
"Quoth the 'Times!'" replied Ermine; "but his appointment began on account of a wound, and went on because of his usefulness—"
"Wounded! I don't like wounded heroes," said Rachel; "people make such a fuss with them that they always get spoilt."
"This was nine years ago, so you may forget it if you like," said Ermine, diversion suppressing displeasure.
"And what is your opinion of him?" said Rachel, edging forward on her knees, so as to bring her inquisitorial eyes to bear more fully.
"I had not seen him for twelve years," said Ermine, rather faintly.
"He must have had a formed character when you saw him last. The twelve years before five-and-forty don't alter the nature."
"Five-and-forty! Illness and climate have told, but I did not think it was so much. He is only thirty-six—"
"That is not what I care about," said Rachel, "you are both of you so cautious that you tell me what amounts to nothing! You should consider how important it is to me to know something about the person in whose power my cousin's affairs are left."
"Have you not sufficient guarantee in the very fact of her husband's confidence?"
"I don't know. A simple-hearted old soldier always means a very foolish old man."
"Witness the Newcomes," said Ermine, who, besides her usual amusement in tracing Rachel's dicta to their source, could only keep in her indignation by laughing.
"General observation," said Rachel, not to be turned from her purpose. "I am not foolishly suspicious, but it is not pleasant to see great influence and intimacy without some knowledge of the person exercising it."