"I think," said Ermine, bringing herself with difficulty to answer quietly, "that you can hardly understand the terms they are on without having seen how much a staff officer becomes one of the family."
"I suppose much must be allowed for the frivolity and narrowness of a military set in a colony. Imagine my one attempt at rational conversation last night. Asking his views on female emigration, absolutely he had none at all; he and Fanny only went off upon a nursemaid married to a sergeant!"
"Perhaps the bearings of the question would hardly suit mixed company."
"To be sure there was a conceited young officer there; for as ill luck will have it, my uncle's old regiment is quartered at Avoncester, and I suppose they will all be coming after Fanny. It is well they are no nearer, and as this colonel says he is going to Belfast in a day or two, there will not be much provocation to them to come here. Now this great event of the Major's coming is over, we will try to put Fanny upon a definite system, and I look to you and your sister as a great assistance to me, in counteracting the follies and nonsenses that her situation naturally exposes her to. I have been writing a little sketch of the dangers of indecision, that I thought of sending to the 'Traveller.' It would strike Fanny to see there what I so often tell her; but I can't get an answer about my paper on 'Curatocult,' as you made me call it."
"You said the other word was of two languages. I can't think why they don't insert it; but in the meantime I will bring down my 'Human Reeds,' and show them to you. I have only an hour's work on them; so I'll come to-morrow afternoon."
"I think Colonel Keith talked of calling again—thank you," suggested Ermine in despair.
"Ah, yes, one does not want to be liable to interruptions in the most interesting part. When he is gone to Belfast—"
"Yes, when he is gone to Belfast!" repeated Ermine, with an irresistible gleam of mirth about her lips and eyes, and at that moment Alison made her appearance. The looks of the sisters met, and read one another so far as to know that the meeting was over, and for the rest they endured, while Rachel remained, little imagining the trial her presence had been to Alison's burning heart—sick anxiety and doubt. How could it be well? Let him be loveable, let him be constant, that only rendered Ermine's condition the more pitiable, and the shining glance of her eyes was almost more than Alison could bear. So happy as the sisters had been together, so absolutely united, it did seem hard to disturb that calm life with hopes and agitations that must needs be futile; and Alison, whose whole life and soul were in her sister, could not without a pang see that sister's heart belonging to another, and not for hopeful joy, but pain and grief. The yearning of jealousy was sternly reproved and forced down, and told that Ermine had long been Colin Keith's, that the perpetrator of the evil had the least right of any one to murmur that her own monopoly of her sister was interfered with; that she was selfish, unkind, envious; that she had only to hate herself and pray for strength to bear the punishment, without alloying Ermine's happiness while it lasted. How it could be so bright Alison knew not, but so it was she recognised by every tone of the voice, by every smile on the lip, by even the upright vigour with which Ermine sat in her chair and undertook Rachel's tasks of needlework.
And yet, when the visitor rose at last to go, Alison was almost unwilling to be alone with her sister, and have that power of sympathy put to the test by those clear eyes that were wont to see her through and through. She went with Rachel to the door, and stood taking a last instruction, hearing it not at all, but answering, and relieved by the delay, hardly knowing whether to be glad or not that when she returned Rose was leaning on the arm of her aunt's chair with the most eager face. But Rose was to be no protection, for what was passing between her and her aunt?
"O auntie, I am go glad he is coming back. He is just like the picture you drew of Robert Bruce for me. And he is so kind. I never saw any gentleman speak to you in such: a nice soft voice."
Alison had no difficulty in smiling as Ermine stroked the child's hair, kissed her, and looked up with an arch, blushing, glittering face that could not have been brighter those long twelve years ago.
And then Rose turned round, impatient to tell her other aunt her story. "O aunt Ailie, we have had such a gentleman here, with a great brown beard like a picture. And he is papa's old friend, and kissed me because I am papa's little girl, and I do like him so very much. I went where I could look at him in the garden, when you sent me out, aunt Ermine."
"You did, you monkey?" said Ermine, laughing, and blushing again. "What will you do if I send you out next time? No, I won't then, my dear, for all the time, I should like you to see him and know him."
"Only, if you want to talk of anything very particular," observed Rose.
"I don't think I need ask many questions," said Alison, smiling being happily made very easy to her. "Dear Ermine, I see you are perfectly satisfied—"
"O Ailie, that is no word for it! Not only himself, but to find him loving Rose for her father's sake, undoubting of him through all. Ailie, the thankfulness of it is more than one can bear."
"And he is the same?" said Alison.
"The same—no, not the same. It is more, better, or I am able to feel it more. It was just like the morrow of the day he walked down the lane with me and gathered honeysuckles, only the night between has been a very, very strange time."
"I hope the interruption did not come very soon."
"I thought it was directly, but it could not have been so soon, since you are come home. We had just had time to tell what we most wanted to know, and I know a little more of what he is. I feel as if it were not only Colin again, but ten times Colin. O Ailie, it must be a little bit like the meetings in heaven!"
"I believe it is so with you," said Alison, scarcely able to keep the tears from her eyes.
"After sometimes not daring to dwell on him, and then only venturing because I thought he must be dead, to have him back again with the same looks, only deeper—to find that he clung to those weeks so long ago, and, above all, that there was not one cloud, one doubt about the troubles—Oh, it is too, too much."
Ermine lent back with clasped hands. She was like one weary with happiness, and lain to rest in the sense of newly-won peace. She said little more that evening, and if spoken to, seemed like one wakened out of a dream, so that more than once she laughed at herself, begged her sister's pardon, and said that it seemed to her that she could not hear anything for the one glad voice that rang in her ear, "Colin is come home." That was sufficient for her, no need for any other sympathy, felt Alison, with another of those pangs crushed down. Then wonder came—whether Ermine could really contemplate the future, or if it were absolutely lost in the present?
Colonel Keith went back to be seized by Conrade and Francis, and walked off to the pony inspection, the two boys, on either side of him, communicating to him the great grievance of living in a poky place like this, where nobody had ever been in the army, nor had a bit of sense, and Aunt Rachel was always bothering, and trying to make mamma think that Con told stories.
"I don't mind that," said Conrade, stoutly; "let her try!"
"Oh, but she wanted mamma to shut you up," added Francis.
"Well, and mamma knows better," said Conrade, "and it made her leave off teaching me, so it was lucky. But I don't mind that; only don't you see, Colonel, they don't know how to treat mamma! They go and bully her, and treat her like—like a subaltern, till I hate the very sight of it."
"My boy," said the Colonel, who had been giving only half attention; "you must make up your mind to your mother not being at the head of everything, as she used to be in your father's time. She will always be respected, but you must look to yourself as you grow up to make a position tor her!"
"I wish I was grown up!" sighed Conrade; "how I would give it to Aunt Rachel! But why must we live here to have her plaguing us?"
Questions that the Colonel was glad to turn aside by moans of the ponies, and by a suggestion that, if a very quiet one were found, and if Conrade would be very careful, mamma might, perhaps, go out riding with them. The motion was so transcendant that, no sooner had the ponies been seen, than the boys raced home, and had communicated it at the top of their voices to mamma long before their friend made his appearance. Lady Temple was quite startled at the idea. "Dear papa," as she always called her husband, "had wished her to ride, but she had seldom done so, and now—" The tears came into her eyes.
"I think you might," said the Colonel, gently; "I could find you a quiet animal, and to have you with Conrade would be such a protection to him," he added, as the boys had rushed out of the room.
"Yes; perhaps, dear boy. But I could not begin alone; it is so long since I rode. Perhaps when you come back from Ireland."
"I am not going to Ireland."
"I thought you said—" said Fanny looking up surprised; "I am very glad! But if you wished to go, pray don't think about us! I shall learn to manage in time, and I cannot bear to detain you."
"You do not detain me," he said, sitting down by her; "I have found what I was going in search of, and through your means."
"What—what do you mean! You were going to see Miss Williams this afternoon, I thought!"
"Yes, and it was she whom I was seeking." He paused, and added slowly, as if merely for the sake of dwelling on the words, "I have found her!"
"Miss Williams!" said Fanny, with perplexed looks.
"Miss Williams!—my Ermine whom I had not seen since the day after her accident, when we parted as on her deathbed!"
"That sister! Oh, poor thing, I am so glad! But I am sorry!" cried the much confused Fanny, in a breath; "were not you very much shocked?"
"I had never hoped to see her face in all its brightness again," he said. "Twelve years! It is twelve years that she has suffered, and of late she has been brought to this grievous state of poverty, and yet the spirit is as brave and cheerful as ever! It looks out of the beautiful eyes—more beautiful than when I first saw them,—I could see and think of nothing else!"
"Twelve years!" repeated Fanny; "is it so long since you saw her?"
"Almost since I heard of her! She was like a daughter to my aunt at Beauchamp, and her brother was my schoolfellow. For one summer, when I was quartered at Hertford, I was with her constantly, but my family would not even hear of the indefinite engagement that was all we could have looked to, and made me exchange into the —th."
"Ah! that was the way we came to have you! I must tell you, dear Sir Stephen always guessed. Once when he had quite vexed poor mamma by preventing her from joking you in her way about young ladies, he told me that once, when he was young, he had liked some one who died or was married, I don't quite know which, and he thought it was the same with you, from something that happened when you withdrew your application for leave after your wound."
"Yes! it was a letter from home, implying that my return would be accepted as a sign that I gave her up. So that was an additional instance of the exceeding kindness that I always received."
And there was a pause, both much affected by the thought of the good old man's ever ready consideration. At last Fanny said, "I am sure it was well for us! What would he have done without you?—and," she added, "do you really mean that you never heard of her all these years?"
"Never after my aunt's death, except just after we went to Melbourne, when I heard in general terms of the ruin of the family and the false imputation on their brother."
"Ah! I remember that you did say something about going home, and Sir Stephen was distressed, and mamma and I persuaded you because we saw he would have missed you so much, and mamma was quite hurt at your thinking of going. But if you had only told him your reason, he would never have thought of standing in your way."
"I know he would not, but I saw he could hardly find any one else just then who knew his ways so well. Besides, there was little use in going home till I had my promotion, and could offer her a home; and I had no notion how utter the ruin was, or that she had lost so much. So little did I imagine their straits that, but for Alison's look, I should hardly have inquired even on hearing her name."
"How very curious—how strangely things come round!" said Fanny; then with a start of dismay, "but what shall I do? Pray, tell me what you would like. If I might only keep her a little while till I can find some one else, though no one will ever be so nice, but indeed I would not for a moment, if you had rather not."
"Why so? Alison is very happy with you, and there can be no reason against her going on."
"Oh!" cried Lady Temple, with an odd sound of satisfaction, doubt, and surprise, "but I thought you would not like it."
"I should like, of course, to set them all at ease, but as I can do no more than make a home for Ermine and her niece, I can only rejoice that Alison is with you."
"But your brother!"
"If he does not like it, he must take the consequence of the utter separation he made my father insist on," said the Colonel sternly. "For my own part, I only esteem both sisters the more, if that were possible, for what they have done for themselves."
"Oh! that is what Rachel would like! She is so fond of the sick—I mean of your—Miss Williams. I suppose I may not tell her yet."
"Not yet, if you please. I have scarcely had time as yet to know what Ermine wishes, but I could not help telling you."
"Thank you—I am so glad," she said, with sweet earnestness, holding out her hand in congratulation. "When may I go to her? I should like for her to come and stay here. Do you think she would?"
"Thank you, I will see. I know how kind you would be—indeed, have already been to her."
"And I am so thankful that I may keep Miss Williams! The dear boys never were so good. And perhaps she may stay till baby is grown up. Oh! how long it will be first!"
"She could not have a kinder friend," said the Colonel, smiling, and looking at his watch.
"Oh, is it time to dress? It is very kind of my dear aunt; but I do wish we could have stayed at home to-night. It is so dull for the boys when I dine out, and I had so much to ask you. One thing was about that poor little Bessie Keith. Don't you think I might ask her down here, to be near her brother?"
"It would be a very kind thing in you, and very good for her, but you must be prepared for rather a gay young lady."
"Oh, but she would not mind my not going out. She would have Alick, you know, and all the boys to amuse her; but, if you think it would be tiresome for her, and that she would not be happy, I should be very sorry to have her, poor child."
"I was not afraid for her," said Colonel Keith, smiling, "but of her being rather too much for you."
"Rachel is not too much for me," said Fanny, "and she and Grace will entertain Bessie, and take her out. But I will talk to Alick. He spoke of coming to-morrow. And don't you think I might ask Colonel and Mrs. Hammond to spend a day? They would so like the sea for the children."
"Then perhaps you would write—oh, I forgot," colouring up, "I never can forget the old days, it seems as if you were on the staff still."
"I always am on yours, and always hope to be," he said, smiling, "though I am afraid I can't write your note to the Hammonds for you."
"But you won't go away," she said. "I know your time will be taken up, and you must not let me or the boys be troublesome; but to have you here makes me so much less lost and lonely. And I shall have such a friend in your Erminia. Is that her name?"
"Ermine, an old Welsh name, the softest I ever heard. Indeed it is dressing time," added Colonel Keith, and both moved away with the startled precision of members of a punctual military household, still feeling themselves accountable to somebody.
CHAPTER VI. ERMINE'S RESOLUTION
"For as his hand the weather steers, So thrive I best 'twixt joys and tears, And all the year have some green ears."—H. VAUGHAN.
Alison had not been wrong in her presentiment that the second interview would be more trying than the first. The exceeding brightness and animation of Ermine's countenance, her speaking eyes, unchanged complexion, and lively manner—above all, the restoration of her real substantial self—had so sufficed and engrossed Colin Keith in the gladness of their first meeting that he had failed to comprehend her helpless state; and already knowing her to be an invalid, not entirely recovered from her accident, he was only agreeably surprised to see the beauty of face he had loved so long, retaining all its vivacity of expression. And when he met Alison the next morning with a cordial brotherly greeting and inquiry for her sister, her "Very well," and "not at all the worse for the excitement," were so hearty and ready that he could not have guessed that "well" with Ermine meant something rather relative than positive. Alison brought him a playful message from her, that since he was not going to Belfast, she should meet him with a freer conscience if he would first give her time for Rose's lessons, and, as he said, he had lived long enough with Messrs. Conrade and Co. to acknowledge the wisdom of the message. But Rose had not long been at leisure to look out for him before he made his appearance, and walked in by right, as one at home; and sitting down in his yesterday's place, took the little maiden on his knee, and began to talk to her about the lessons he had been told to wait for. What would she have done without them? He knew some people who never could leave the house quiet enough to hear one's-self speak if they were deprived of lessons. Was that the way with her? Rose laughed like a creature, her aunt said, "to whom the notion of noise at play was something strange and ridiculous; necessity has reduced her to Jacqueline Pascal's system with her pensionnaires, who were allowed to play one by one without any noise."
"But I don't play all alone," said Rose; "I play with you, Aunt Ermine, and with Violetta."
And Violetta speedily had the honour of an introduction, very solemnly gone through, in due form; Ermine, in the languid sportiveness of enjoyment of his presence and his kindness to the child, inciting Rose to present Miss Violetta Williams to Colonel Keith, an introduction that he returned with a grand military salute, at the same time as he shook the doll's inseparable fingers. "Well, Miss Violetta, and Miss Rose, when you come to live with me, I shall hope for the pleasure of teaching you to make a noise."
"What does he mean?" said Rose, turning round amazed upon her aunt.
"I am afraid he does not quite know," said Ermine, sadly.
"Nay, Ermine," said he, turning from the child, and bending over her, "you are the last who should say that. Have I not told you that there is nothing now in our way—no one with a right to object, and means enough for all we should wish, including her—? What is the matter?" he added, startled by her look.
"Ah, Colin! I thought you knew—"
"Knew what, Ermine?" with his brows drawn together.
"Knew—what I am," she said; "knew the impossibility. What, they have not told you? I thought I was the invalid, the cripple, with every one."
"I knew you had suffered cruelly; I knew you were lame," he said, breathlessly; "but—what—"
"It is more than lame," she said. "I should be better off if the fiction of the Queens of Spain were truth with me. I could not move from this chair without help. Oh, Colin! poor Colin! it was very cruel not to have prepared you for this!" she added, as he gazed at her in grief and dismay, and made a vain attempt to find the voice that would not come. "Yes, indeed it is so," she said; "the explosion, rather than the fire, did mischief below the knee that poor nature could not repair, and I can but just stand, and cannot walk at all."
"Has anything been done—advice?" he murmured.
"Advice upon advice, so that I felt at the last almost a compensation to be out of the way of the doctors. No, nothing more can be done; and now that one is used to it, the snail is very comfortable in its shell. But I wish you could have known it sooner!" she added, seeing him shade his brow with his hand, overwhelmed.
"What you must have suffered!" he murmured.
"That is all over long ago; every year has left that further behind, and made me more content. Dear Colin, for me there is nothing to grieve."
He could not control himself, rose up, made a long stride, and passed through the open window into the garden.
"Oh, if I could only follow him," gasped Ermine, joining her hands and looking up.
"Is it because you can't walk?" said Rose, somewhat frightened, and for the first time beginning to comprehend that her joyous-tempered aunt could be a subject for pity.
"Oh! this was what I feared!" sighed Ermine. "Oh, give us strength to go through with it." Then becoming awake to the child's presence—"A little water, if you please, my dear." Then, more composedly, "Don't be frightened, my Rose; you did not know it was such a shock to find me so laid by—"
"He is in the garden walking up and down," said Rose. "May I go and tell him how much merrier you always are than Aunt Ailie?"
Poor Ermine felt anything but merry just then, but she had some experience of Rose's powers of soothing, and signed assent. So in another second Colonel Keith was met in the hasty, agonized walk by which he was endeavouring to work off his agitation, and the slender child looked wistfully up at him from dark depths of half understanding eyes—"Please, please don't be so very sorry," she said. "Aunt Ermine does not like it. She never is sorry for herself—"
"Have I shaken her—distressed her?" he asked, anxiously.
"She doesn't like you to be sorry," said Rose, looking up. "And, indeed, she does not mind it; she is such a merry aunt! Please, come in again, and see how happy we always are—"
The last words were spoken so near the window that Ermine caught them, and said, "Yes, come in, Colin, and learn not to grieve for me, or you will make me repent of my selfish gladness yesterday."
"Not grieve!" he exclaimed, "when I think of the beautiful vigorous being that used to be the life of the place—" and he would have said more but for a deprecating sign of the hand.
"Well," she said, half smiling, "it is a pity to think even of a crushed butterfly; but indeed, Colin, if you can bear to listen to me, I think I can show you that it all has been a blessing even by sight, as well as, of course, by faith. Only remember the unsatisfactoriness of our condition—the never seeing or hearing from one another after that day when Mr. Beauchamp came down on us. Did not the accident win for us a parting that was much better to remember than that state of things? Oh, the pining, weary feel as if all the world had closed on me! I do assure you it was much worse than anything that came after the burn. Yes, if I had been well and doing like others, I know I should have fretted and wearied, pined myself ill perhaps, whereas I could always tell myself that every year of your absence might be a step towards your finding me well; and when I was forced to give up that hope for myself, why then, Colin, the never seeing your name made me think you would never be disappointed and grieved as you are now. It is very merciful the way that physical trials help one through those of the mind."
"I never knew," said the Colonel; "all my aunt's latter letters spoke of your slow improvement beyond hope."
"True, in her time, I had not reached the point where I stopped. The last time I saw her I was still upstairs; and, indeed, I did not half know what I could do till I tried."
"Yes," said he, brightened by that buoyant look so remarkable in her face; "and you will yet do more, Ermine. You have convinced me that we shall be all the happier together—"
"But that was not what I meant to convince you of—" she said, faintly.
"Not what you meant, perhaps; but what it did convince me was, that you—as you are, my Ermine—are ten thousand times more to me than even as the beautiful girl, and that there never can be a happier pair than we shall be when I am your hands and feet."
Ermine sat up, and rallied all her forces, choked back the swelling of her throat, and said, "Dear Colin, it cannot be! I trusted you were understanding that when I told you how it was with me."
He could not speak from consternation.
"No," she said; "it would be wrong in me to think of it for an instant. That you should have done so, shows—O Colin, I cannot talk of it; but it would be as ungenerous in me to consent, as it is noble of you to propose it."
"It is no such thing," he answered; "it has been the one object and thought of my life, the only hope I have had all these years."
"Exactly so," she said, struggling again to speak firmly; "and that is the very thing. You kept your allegiance to the bright, tall, walking, active girl, and it would be a shame in the scorched cripple to claim it."
"Don't call yourself names. Have I not told you that you are more than the same?"
"You do not know. You are pleased because my face is not burnt, nor grown much older, and because I can talk and laugh in the same voice still." (Oh, how it quivered!) "But it would be a wicked mockery in me to pretend to be the wife you want. Yes, I know you think you do, but that is just because my looks are so deceitful, and you have kept on thinking about me; but you must make a fresh beginning."
"You can tell me that," he said, indignantly.
"Because it is not new to me," she said; "the quarter of an hour you stood by me, with that deadly calm in your white face, was the real farewell to the young hopeful dream of that bright summer. I wish it was as calm now."
"I believed you dying then," answered he.
"Do not make me think it would have been better for you if I had been," she said, imploringly. "It was as much the end, and I knew it from the time my recovery stopped short. I would have let you know if I could, and then you would not have been so much shocked."
"So as to cut me off from you entirely?"
"No, indeed. The thought of seeing you again was too—too overwhelming to be indulged in; knowing, as I did, that if you were the same to me, it must be at this sad cost to you," and her eyes filled with tears.
"It is you who make it so, Ermine."
"No; it is the providence that has set me aside from the active work of life. Pray do not go on, Colin, it is only giving us both useless pain. You do not know what it costs me to deny you, and I feel that I must. I know you are only acting on the impulse of generosity. Yes, I will say so, though you think it is to please yourself," she added, with one of those smiles that nothing could drive far from her lips, and which made it infinitely harder to acquiesce in her denial.
"I will make you think so in time," he said. "Then I might tell you, you had no right to please yourself," she answered, still with the same air of playfulness; "you have got a brother, you know—and—yes, I hear you growl; but if he is a poor old broken man out of health, it is the more reason you should not vex him, nor hamper yourself with a helpless commodity."
"You are not taking the way to make me forget what my brother has done for us."
"How do you know that he did not save me from being a strong-minded military lady! After all, it was absurd to expect people to look favourably on our liking for one another, and you know they could not be expected to know that there was real stuff in the affair. If there had not been, we should have thought so all the same, you know, and been quite as furious."
He could not help smiling, recollecting fury that, in the course of these twelve years, he had seen evinced under similar circumstances by persons who had consoled themselves before he had done pitying them. "Still," he said gravely, "I think there was harshness."
"So do I, but not so much as I thought at that time, and—oh, surely that is not Rachel Curtis? I told her I thought you would call."
"Intolerable!" he muttered between his teeth. "Is she always coming to bore you?"
"She has been very kind, and my great enlivenment," said Ermine, "and she can't be expected to know how little we want her. Oh, there, the danger is averted! She must have asked if you were here."
"I was just thinking that she was the chief objection to Lady Temple's kind wish of having you at Myrtlewood."
"Does Lady Temple know?" asked Ermine, blushing.
"I could not keep it from one who has been so uniformly kind to me; but I desired her not to let it go further till I should hear your wishes."
"Yes, she has a right to know," said Ermine; "but please, not a word elsewhere."
"And will you not come to stay with her?"
"I? Oh, no; I am fit for no place but this. You don't half know how bad I am. When you have seen a little more of us, you will be quite convinced."
"Well, at least, you give me leave to come here."
"Leave? When it is a greater pleasure than I ever thought to have again; that is, while you understand that you said good-bye to the Ermine of Beauchamp Parsonage twelve years ago, and that the thing here is only a sort of ghost, most glad and grateful to be a friend—a sister."
"So," he said, "those are to be the terms of my admission."
"The only possible ones."
"I will consider them. I have not accepted them."
"You will," she said.
But she met a smile in return, implying that there might be a will as steadfast as her own, although the question might be waived for a time.
Meantime, Rachel was as nearly hating Colonel Keith as principle would allow, with "Human Reeds," newly finished, burning in her pocket, "Military Society" fermenting in her brain, and "Curatocult" still unacknowledged. Had he not had quite time for any rational visit? Was he to devour Mackarel Lane as well as Myrtlewood? She was on her way to the latter house, meeting Grace as she went, and congratulating herself that he could not be in two places at once, whilst Grace secretly wondered how far she might venture to build on Alison Williams's half confidence, and regretted the anxiety wasted by Rachel and the mother; though, to be sure, that of Mrs. Curtis was less uncalled for than her daughter's, since it was only the fear of Fanny's not being sufficiently guarded against misconstructions.
Rachel held up her hands in despair in the hall. "Six officers' cards!" she exclaimed.
"No, only six cards," said Grace; "there are two of each."
"That's enough," sighed Rachel; "and look there," gazing through the garden-door. "She is walking with the young puppy that dined here on Thursday, and they called Alick."
"Do you remember," said Grace, "how she used to chatter about Alick, when she first came to us, at six years old. He was the child of one of the officers. Can this be the same?"
"That's one of your ideas, Grace. Look, this youth could have been hardly born when Fanny came to us. No; he is only one of the idlers that military life has accustomed her to."
Rather against Grace's feeling, Rachel drew her on, so as to come up with Lady Temple and her friend in the midst of their conversation, and they heard the last words—
"Then you will give me dear Bessie's direction?"
"Thank you, it will be the greatest kindness—"
"Oh, Grace, Rachel, is it you?" exclaimed Fanny. "You have not met before, I think. Mr. Keith—Miss Curtis."
Very young indeed were both face and figure, fair and pale, and though there was a moustache, it was so light and silky as to be scarcely visible; the hair, too, was almost flaxen, and the whole complexion had a washed-out appearance. The eyes, indeed, were of the same peculiar deep blue as the Colonel's, but even these were little seen under their heavy sleepy lids, and the long limbs had in every movement something of weight and slowness, the very sight of which fretted Rachel, and made her long to shake him. It appeared that he was come to spend the Sunday at Avonmouth, and Grace tried to extract the comfort for her mother that two gentlemen were better than one, and Fanny need not be on their minds for chaperonage for that day.
A party of garden-chairs on the lawn invited repose, and there the ladies seated themselves; Fanny laying down her heavy crape bonnet, and showing her pretty little delicate face, now much fresher and more roseate than when she arrived, though her wide-spreading black draperies gave a certain dignity to her slight figure, contrasting with the summer muslins of her two cousins; as did her hot-house plant fairness, with their firm, healthy glow of complexion; her tender shrinking grace, with their upright vigour. The gentleman of the party leant hack in a languid, easy posture, as though only half awake, and the whole was so quiet that Grace, missing the usual tumult of children, asked after them.
"The boys have gone to their favourite cove under the plantation. They have a fort there, and Hubert told me he was to be a hero, and Miss Williams a she-ro."
"I would not encourage that description of sport," said Rachel, willing to fight a battle in order to avert maternal anecdotes of boyish sayings.
"They like it so much," said Fanny, "and they learn so much now that they act all the battles they read about."
"That is what I object to," said Rachel; "it is accustoming them to confound heroism with pugnacity."
"No, but Rachel dear, they do quarrel and fight among themselves much less now that this is all in play and good humour," pleaded Fanny.
"Yes, that may be, but you are cultivating the dangerous instinct, although for a moment giving it a better direction."
"Dangerous? Oh, Alick! do you think it can be?" said Fanny, less easily borne down with a supporter beside her.
"According to the Peace Society," he answered, with a quiet air of courteous deference; "perhaps you belong to it?"
"No, indeed," answered Rachel, rather indignantly, "I think war the great purifier and ennobler of nations, when it is for a good and great cause; but I think education ought to protest against confounding mere love of combat with heroism."
"Query, the true meaning of the word?" he said, leaning back.
"Heros, yes from the same root as the German herr," readily responded Rachel, "meaning no more than lord and master; but there can be no doubt that the progress of ideas has linked with it a much nobler association."
"Progress! What, since the heroes were half divine!"
"Half divine in the esteem of a people who thought brute courage godlike. To us the word maintains its semi-divinity, and it should be our effort to associate it only with that which veritably has the god-like stamp."
"And that is—?"
"Doing more than one's duty," exclaimed Rachel, with a glistening eye.
"Very uncomfortable and superfluous, and not at all easy," he said, half shutting his already heavy eyes.
"Easy, no, that's the beauty and the glory—"
"Major Sherborne and Captain Lester in the drawing room, my lady," announced Coombe, who had looked infinitely cheered since this military influx.
"You will come with me, Grace," said Fanny, rising. "I dare say you had rather not, Rachel, and it would be a pity to disturb you, Alick."
"Thank you; it would be decidedly more than my duty."
"I am quite sorry to go, you are so amusing," said Fanny, "but I suppose you will have settled about heroism by the time we come out again, and will tell me what the boys ought to play at."
Rachel's age was quite past the need of troubling herself at being left tete-a-tete with a mere lad like this; and, besides, it was an opportunity not to be neglected of giving a young carpet knight a lesson in true heroism. There was a pause after the other two had moved off. Rachel reflected for a few moments, and then, precipitated by the fear of her audience falling asleep, she exclaimed—
"No words have been more basely misused than hero and heroine. The one is the mere fighting animal whose strength or fortune have borne him through some more than ordinary danger, the other is only the subject of an adventure, perfectly irrespective of her conduct in it."
"Bathos attends all high words," he said, as she paused, chiefly to see whether he was awake, and not like her dumb playfellow of old.
"This is not their natural bathos but their misuse. They ought to be reserved for those who in any department have passed the limits to which the necessity of their position constrained them, and done acts of self-devotion for the good of others. I will give you an instance, and from your own profession, that you may see I am not prejudiced, besides, the hero of it is past praise or blame."
Encouraged by seeing a little more of his eyes, she went on. "It was in the course of the siege of Delhi, a shell came into a tent where some sick and wounded were lying. There was one young officer among them who could move enough to have had a chance of escaping the explosion, but instead of that he took the shell up, its fuse burning as it was, and ran with it out of the tent, then hurled it to a distance. It exploded, and of course was his death, but the rest were saved, and I call that a deed of heroism far greater than mounting a breach or leading a forlorn hope."
"Killed, you say?" inquired Mr. Keith, still in the same lethargic manner.
"Oh yes, mortally wounded: carried back to die among the men he had saved."
"Jessie Cameron singing his dirge," mumbled this provoking individual, with something about the form of his cheek that being taken by Rachel for a derisive smile, made her exclaim vehemently, "You do not mean to undervalue an action like that in comparison with mere animal pugnacity in an advance."
"More than one's duty was your test," he said.
"And was not this more than duty? Ah! I see yours is a spirit of depreciation, and I can only say I pity you."
He took the trouble to lift himself up and make a little bow of acknowledgment. Certainly he was worse than the Colonel; but Rachel, while mustering her powers for annihilating him, was annoyed by all the party in the drawing-room coming forth to join them, the other officers rallying young Keith upon his luxurious station, and making it evident that he was a proverb in the regiment for taking his ease. Chairs were brought out, and afternoon tea, and the callers sat down to wait for Colonel Keith to come in; Grace feeling obliged to stay to help Fanny entertain her visitors, and Rachel to protect her from their follies. One thing Grace began to perceive, that Lady Temple had in her former world been a person of much more consideration than she was made here, and seeing the polite and deferential manner of these officers to her, could only wonder at her gentle content and submission in meeting with no particular attention from anybody, and meekly allowing herself to be browbeaten by Rachel and lectured by her aunt.
A lecture was brewing up for her indeed. Poor Mrs. Curtis was very much concerned at the necessity, and only spurred up by a strong sense of duty to give a hint—the study of which hint cost her a whole sleepless night and a very weary Sunday morning. She decided that her best course would be to drive to Myrtlewood rather early on her way to church, and take up Fanny, gaining a previous conference with her alone, if possible. "Yes, my dear," she said to Grace, "I must get it over before church, or it will make me so nervous all through the service." And Grace, loving her mother best, durst not suggest what it might do to Fanny, hoping that the service might help her to digest the hint.
Mrs. Curtis's regular habits were a good deal shocked to find Fanny still at the breakfast table. The children had indeed long finished, and were scattered about the room, one of them standing between Colonel Keith's knees, repeating a hymn; but the younger guest was still in the midst of his meal, and owned in his usual cool manner that he was to blame for the lateness, there was no resisting the charms of no morning parade.
Her aunt's appearance made Fanny imagine it much later than it really was, and she hurried off the children to be dressed, and proceeded herself to her room, Mrs. Curtis following, and by way of preliminary, asking when Colonel Keith was going to Ireland.
"Oh!" said Fanny, blushing most suspiciously under her secret, "he is not going to Ireland now."
"Indeed! I quite understood he intended it."
"Yes," faltered Fanny, "but he found that he need not."
"Indeed!" again ejaculated poor perplexed Mrs. Curtis; "but then, at least, he is going away soon."
"He must go to Scotland by-and-by, but for the present he is going into lodgings. Do you know of any nice ones, dear aunt?"
"Well, I suppose you can't help that; you know, my dear, it would never do for him to stay in this house."
"I never thought of that," said Fanny simply, the colour coming in a fresh glow.
"No, my dear, but you see you are very young and inexperienced. I do not say you have done anything the least amiss, or that you ever would mean it, only you will forgive your old aunt for putting you on your guard."
Fanny kissed her, but with eyes full of tears, and cheeks burning, then her candour drew from her—"It was he that thought of getting a lodging. I am glad I did not persuade him not; but you know he always did live with us."
"With us. Yes, my poor dear, that is the difference, and you see he feels it. But, indeed, my dear child, though he is a very good man, I dare say, and quite a gentleman all but his beard, you had better not encourage—You know people are so apt to make remarks."
"I have no fear," said Fanny, turning away her head, conscious of the impossibility of showing her aunt her mistake.
"Ah! my dear, you don't guess how ready people are to talk; and you would not like—for your children's sake, for your husband's sake—that—that—"
"Pray, pray aunt," cried Fanny, much pained, "indeed you don't know. My husband had confidence in him more than in any one. He told him to take care of me and look after the boys. I couldn't hold aloof from him without transgressing those wishes"—and the words were lost in a sob.
"My dear, indeed I did not mean to distress you. You know, I dare say—I mean—" hesitated poor Mrs. Curtis. "I know you must see a great deal of him. I only want you to take care—appearances are appearances, and if it was said you had all these young officers always coming about—"
"I don't think they will come. It was only just to call, and they have known me so long. It is all out of respect to my father and Sir Stephen," said Fanny, meekly as ever. "Indeed, I would not for the world do anything you did not like, dear aunt; but there can't be any objection to my having Mrs. Hammond and the children to spend the day to-morrow."
Mrs. Curtis did not like it; she had an idea that all military ladies were dashing and vulgar, but she could not say there was any objection, so she went on to the head of poor Fanny's offending. "This young man, my dear, he seems to make himself very intimate."
"Alick Keith? Oh aunt!" said Fanny, more surprised than by all the rest; "don't you know about him? His father and mother were our greatest friends always; I used to play with him every day till I came to you. And then just as I married, poor Mrs. Keith died, and we had dear little Bessie with us till her father could send her home. And when poor Alick was so dreadfully wounded before Delhi, Sir Stephen sent him up in a litter to the hills for mamma and me to nurse. Mamma was so fond of him, she used to call him her son."
"Yes, my dear, I dare say you have been very intimate; but you see you are very young; and his staying here—"
"I thought he would be so glad to come and be with the Colonel, who was his guardian and Bessie's," said Fanny, "and I have promised to have Bessie to stay with me, she was such a dear little thing—"
"Well, my dear, it may be a good thing for you to have a young lady with you, and if he is to come over, her presence will explain it. Understand me, my dear, I am not at all afraid of your—your doing anything foolish, only to get talked of is so dreadful in your situation, that you can't be too careful."
"Yes, yes, thank you, dear aunt," murmured the drooping and subdued Fanny, aware how much the remonstrance must cost her aunt, and sure that she must be in fault in some way, if she could only see how. "Please, dear aunt, help me, for indeed I don't know how to manage—tell me how to be civil and kind to my dear husband's friends without—without—"
Her voice broke down, though she kept from tears as an unkindness to her aunt.
In very fact, little as she knew it, she could not have defended herself better than by this humble question, throwing the whole guidance of her conduct upon her aunt. If she had been affronted, Mrs. Curtis could have been displeased; but to be thus set to prescribe the right conduct, was at once mollifying and perplexing.
"Well, well, my dear child, we all know you wish to do right; you can judge best. I would not have you ungrateful or uncivil, only you know you are living very quietly, and intimacy—oh! my dear, I know your own feeling will direct you. Dear child! you have taken what I said so kindly. And now let me see that dear little girl."
Rachel had not anticipated that the upshot of a remonstrance, even from her mother, would be that Fanny was to be directed by her own feeling!
That same feeling took Lady Temple to Mackarel Lane later in the day. She had told the Colonel her intention, and obtained Alison's assurance that Ermine's stay at Myrtlewood need not be impracticable, and armed with their consent, she made her timid tap at Miss Williams' door, and showed her sweet face within it.
"May I come in? Your sister and your little niece are gone for a walk. I told them I would come! I did want to see you!"
"Thank you," said Ermine, with a sweet smile, colouring cheek, yet grave eyes, and much taken by surprise at being seized by both hands, and kissed on each cheek.
"Yes, you must let me," said her visitor, looking up with her pretty imploring gesture, "you know I have known him so long, and he has been so good to me!"
"Indeed it is very kind in you," said Ermine, fully feeling the force of the plea expressed in the winning young face and gentle eyes full of tears.
"Oh, no, I could not help it. I am only so sorry we kept him away from you when you wanted him so much; but we did not know, and he was Sir Stephen's right hand, and we none of us knew what to do without him; but if he had only told—"
"Thank you, oh, thank you!" said Ermine, "but indeed it was better for him to be away."
Even her wish to console that pleading little widow could not make her say that his coming would not have been good for her. "It has been such a pleasure to hear he had so kind and happy a home all these years."
"Oh, you cannot think how Sir Stephen loved and valued him. The one thing I always did wish was, that Conrade should grow up to be as much help and comfort to his father, and now he never can! But," driving back a tear, "it was so hard that you should not have known how distinguished and useful and good he was all those years. Only now I shall have the pleasure of telling you," and she smiled. She was quite a different being when free from the unsympathizing influence which, without her understanding it, had kept her from dwelling on her dearest associations.
"It will be a pleasure of pleasures," said Ermine, eagerly.
"Then you will do me a favour, a very great favour," said Lady Temple, laying hold of her hand again, "if you and your sister and niece will come and stay with me." And as Ermine commenced her refusal, she went on in the same coaxing way, with a description of her plans for Ermine's comfort, giving her two rooms on the ground floor, and assuring her of the absence of steps, the immunity from all teasing by the children, of the full consent of her sister, and the wishes of the Colonel, nay, when Ermine was still unpersuaded of the exceeding kindness it would be to herself. "You see I am terribly young, really," she said, "though I have so many boys, and my aunt thinks it awkward for me to have so many officers calling, and I can't keep them away because they are my father's and Sir Stephen's old friends; so please do come and make it all right!"
Ermine was driven so hard, and so entirely deprived of all excuse, that she had no alternative left but to come to the real motive.
"I ought not," she said, "it is not good for him, so you must not press me, dear Lady Temple. You see it is best for him that nobody should ever know of what has been between us."
"What! don't you mean—?" exclaimed Fanny, breaking short off.
"I cannot!" said Ermine.
"But he would like it. He wishes it as much as ever."
"I know he does," said Ermine, with a troubled voice; "but you see that is because he did not know what a wretched remnant I am, and he never has had time to think about any one else."
"Oh no, no."
"And it would be very unfair of me to take advantage of that, and give him such a thing as I am."
"Oh dear, but that is very sad!" cried Fanny, looking much startled.
"But I am sure you must see that it is right."
"It may be right," and out burst Fanny's ready tears; "but it is very, very hard and disagreeable, if you don't mind my saying so, when I know it is so good of you. And don't you mean to let him even see you, when he has been constant so long?"
"No; I see no reason for denying myself that; indeed I believe it is better for him to grow used to me as I am, and be convinced of the impossibility."
"Well then, why will you not come to me?"
"Do you not see, in all your kindness, that my coming to you would make every one know the terms between us, while no one remarks his just coming to me here as an old friend? And if he were ever to turn his mind to any one else—"
"He will never do that, I am sure."
"There is no knowing. He has never been, in his own estimation, disengaged from me," said Ermine; "his brother is bent on his marrying, and he ought to be perfectly free to do so, and not under the disadvantage that any report of this affair would be to him."
"Well, I am sure he never will," said Fanny, almost petulantly; "I know I shall hate her, that's all."
Ermine thought her own charity towards Mrs. Colin Keith much more dubious than Lady Temple's, but she continued—
"At any rate you will be so very kind as not to let any one know of it. I am glad you do. I should not feel it right that you should not, but it is different with others."
"Thank you. And if you will not come to me, you will let me come to you, won't you? It will be so nice to come and talk him over with you. Perhaps I shall persuade you some of these days after all. Only I must go now, for I always give the children their tea on Sunday. But please let your dear little niece come up to-morrow and play with them; the little Hammonds will be there, she is just their age."
Ermine felt obliged to grant this at least, though she was as doubtful of her shy Rose's happiness as of the expedience of the intimacy; but there was no being ungracious to the gentle visitor, and no doubt Ermine felt rejoiced and elevated. She did not need fresh assurances of Colin's constancy, but the affectionate sister-like congratulations of this loving, winning creature, showed how real and in earnest his intentions were. And then Lady Temple's grateful esteem for him being, as it was, the reflection of her husband's, was no small testimony to his merits.
"Pretty creature!" said Ermine to herself, "really if it did come to that, I could spare him to her better than to any one else. She has some notion how to value him."
Alison and Rose had, in the meantime, been joined by Colonel Keith and the boys, whom Alick had early deserted in favour of a sunny sandy nook. The Colonel's purpose was hard on poor Alison; it was to obtain her opinion of her sister's decision, and the likelihood of persistence in it. It was not, perhaps, bad for either that they conversed under difficulties, the boys continually coming back to them from excursions on the rocks, and Rose holding her aunt's hand all the time, but to be sure Rose had heard nearly all the Colonel's affairs, and somehow mixed him up with Henry of Cranstoun.
Very tenderly towards Alison herself did Colin Keith speak. It was the first time they had ever been brought into close contact, and she had quite to learn to know him. She had regarded his return as probably a misfortune, but it was no longer possible to do so when she heard his warm and considerate way of speaking of her sister, and saw him only desirous of learning what was most for her real happiness. Nay, he even made a convert of Alison herself! She did believe that would Ermine but think it right to consent, she would be happy and safe in the care of one who knew so well how to love her. Terrible as the wrench would be to Alison herself, she thought he deserved her sister, and that she would be as happy with him as earth could make her. But she did not believe Ermine would ever accept him. She knew the strong, unvarying resolution by which her sister had always held to what she thought right, and did not conceive that it would waver. The acquiescence in his visits, and the undisguised exultant pleasure in his society, were evidences to Alison not of wavering or relenting, but of confidence in Ermine's own sense of impossibility. She durst not give him any hope, though she owned that he merited success. "Did she think his visits bad for her sister?" he then asked in the unselfishness that pleaded so strongly for him.
"No, certainly not," she answered eagerly, then made a little hesitation that made him ask further.
"My only fear," she said candidly, "is, that if this is pressed much on her, and she has to struggle with you and herself too, it may hurt her health. Trouble tells not on her cheerfulness, but on her nerves."
"Thank you," he said, "I will refrain."
Alison was much happier than she had been since the first apprehension of his return. The first pang at seeing Ermine's heart another's property had been subdued; the present state of affairs was indefinitely-prolonged, and she not only felt trust in Colin Keith's consideration for her sister, but she knew that an act of oblivion was past on her perpetration of the injury. She was right. His original pitying repugnance to a mere unknown child could not be carried on to the grave, saddened woman devoted to her sister, and in the friendly brotherly tone of that interview, each understood the other. And when Alison came home and said, "I have been walking with Colin," her look made Ermine very happy.
"And learning to know him."
"Learning to sympathize with him, Ermine," with steady eyes and voice. "You are hard on him."
"Now, Ailie," said Ermine, "once for all, he is not to set you on me, as he has done with Lady Temple. The more he persuades me, the better I know that to listen would be an abuse of his constancy. It would set him wrong with his brother, and, as dear Edward's affairs stand, we have no right to carry the supposed disgrace into a family that would believe it, though he does not. If I were ever so well, I should not think it right to marry. I shall not shun the sight of him; it is delightful to me, and a less painful cure to him than sending him away would be. It is in the nature of things that he should cool into a friendly kindly feeling, and I shall try to bear it. Or if he does marry, it will be all right I suppose—" but her voice faltered, and she gave a sort of broken laugh.
"There," she said, with a recovered flash of liveliness, "there's my resolution, to do what I like more than anything in the world as long as I can; and when it is over I shall be helped to do without it!"
"I can't believe—" broke out Alison.
"Not in your heart, but in your reason," said Ermine, endeavouring to smile. "He will hover about here, and always be kind, loving, considerate; but a time will come that he will want the home happiness I cannot give. Then he will not wear out his affection on the impossible literary cripple, but begin over again, and be happy. And, Alison, if your love for me is of the sound, strong sort I know it is, you will help me through with it, and never say one word to make all this less easy and obvious to him."
CHAPTER VII. WAITNG FOR ROSE
"Not envy, sure! for if you gave me Leave to take or to refuse In earnest, do you think I'd choose That sort of new love to enslave me?"—R. BROWNING.
So, instead of going to Belfast, here was Colonel Keith actually taking a lodging and settling himself into it; nay, even going over to Avoncester on a horse-buying expedition, not merely for the Temples, but for himself.
This time Rachel did think herself sure of Miss Williams' ear in peace, and came down on her with two fat manuscripts upon Human Reeds and Military Society, preluding, however, by bitter complaints of the "Traveller" for never having vouchsafed her an answer, nor having even restored "Curatocult," though she had written three times, and sent a directed envelope and stamps for the purpose. The paper must be ruined by so discourteous an editor, indeed she had not been nearly so much interested as usual by the last few numbers. If only she could get her paper back, she should try the "Englishwoman's Hobby-horse," or some other paper of more progress than that "Traveller." "Is it not very hard to feel one's self shut out from the main stream of the work of the world when one's heart is burning?"
"I think you overrate the satisfaction."
"You can't tell! You are contented with that sort of home peaceful sunshine that I know suffices many. Even intellectual as you are, you can't tell what it is to feel power within, to strain at the leash, and see others in the race."
"I was thinking whether you could not make an acceptable paper on the lace system, which you really know so thoroughly."
"The fact is," said Rachel, "it is much more difficult to describe from one's own observation than from other sources."
"But rather more original," said Ermine, quite overcome by the naivete of the confession.
"I don't see that," said Rachel. "It is abstract reasoning from given facts that I aim at, as you will understand when you have heard my 'Human Reeds,' and my other—dear me, there's your door bell. I thought that Colonel was gone for the day."
"There are other people in the world besides the Colonel," Ermine began to say, though she hardly felt as if there were, and at any rate a sense of rescue crossed her. The persons admitted took them equally by surprise, being Conrade Temple and Mr. Keith.
"I thought," said Rachel, as she gave her unwilling hand to the latter, "that you would have been at Avoncester to-day."
"I always get out of the way of horse-dealing. I know no greater bore," he answered.
"Mamma sent me down," Conrade was explaining; "Mr. Keith's uncle found out that he knew Miss Williams—no, that's not it, Miss Williams' uncle found out that Mr. Keith preached a sermon, or something of that sort, so mamma sent me down to show him the way to call upon her; but I need not stay now, need I?"
"After that elegant introduction, and lucid explanation, I think you may be excused," returned Alick Keith.
The boy shook Ermine's hand with his soldierly grace, but rather spoilt the effect thereof by his aside, "I wanted to see the toad and the pictures our Miss Williams told me about, but I'll come another time;" and the wink of his black eyes, and significant shrug of his shoulders at Rachel, were irresistible. They all laughed, even Rachel herself, as Ermine, seeing it would be worse to ignore the demonstration, said, "The elements of aunt and boy do not always work together."
"No," said Rachel; "I have never been forgiven for being the first person who tried to keep those boys in order."
"And now," said Ermine, turning to her other visitor, "perhaps I may discover which of us, or of our uncles, preached a sermon."
"Mine, I suspect," returned Mr. Keith. "Your sister and I made out at luncheon that you had known my uncle, Mr. Clare, of Bishopsworthy."
"Mr. Clare! Oh yes," cried Ermine eagerly, "he took the duty for one of our curates once for a long vacation. Did you ever hear him speak of Beauchamp?"
"Yes, often; and of Dr. Williams. He will be very much interested to hear of you."
"It was a time I well remember," said Ermine. "He was an Oxford tutor then, and I was about fourteen, just old enough to be delighted to hear clever talk. And his sermons were memorable; they were the first I ever listened to."
"There are few sermons that it is not an infliction to listen to," began Rachel, but she was not heard or noticed.
"I assure you they are even more striking now in his blindness."
"Blindness! Indeed, I had not heard of that."
Even Rachel listened with interest as the young officer explained that his uncle, whom both he and Miss Williams talked of as a man of note, of whom every one must have heard, had for the last four years been totally blind, but continued to be an active parish priest, visiting regularly, preaching, and taking a share in the service, which he knew by heart. He had, of course, a curate, who lived with him, and took very good care of him.
"No one else?" said Rachel. "I thought your sister lived at Bishopsworthy."
"No, my sister lives, or has lived, at Little Worthy, the next parish, and as unlike it as possible. It has a railroad in it, and the cockneys have come down on it and 'villafied' it. My aunt, Mrs. Lacy Clare, has lived there ever since my sister has been with her; but now her last daughter is to be married, she wishes to give up housekeeping."
"And your sister is coming to Lady Temple," said Rachel, in her peculiar affirmative way of asking questions. "She will find it very dull here."
"With all the advantages of Avoncester at hand?" inquired Alick, with a certain gleam under his flaxen eyelashes that convinced Ermine that he said it in mischief. But Rachel drew herself up gravely, and answered—
"In Lady Temple's situation any such thing would be most inconsistent with good feeling."
"Such as the cathedral?" calmly, not to say sleepily, inquired Alick, to the excessive diversion of Ermine, who saw that Rachel had never been laughed at in her life, and was utterly at a loss what to make of it.
"If you meant the cathedral," she said, a little uncertainly, recollecting the tone in which Mr. Clare had just been spoken of, and thinking that perhaps Miss Keith might be a curatolatress, "I am afraid it is not of much benefit to people living at this distance, and there is not much to be said for the imitation here."
"You will see what my sister says to it. She only wants training to be the main strength of the Bishopsworthy choir, and perhaps she may find it here."
Rachel was evidently undecided whether chants or marches were Miss Keith's passion, and, perhaps, which propensity would render the young lady the most distasteful to herself. Ermine thought it merciful to divert the attack by mentioning Mr. Clare's love of music, and hoping his curate could gratify it. "No," Mr. Keith said, "it was very unlucky that Mr. Lifford did not know one note from another; so that his vicar could not delude himself into hoping that his playing on his violin was anything but a nuisance to his companion, and in spite of all the curate's persuasions, he only indulged himself therewith on rare occasions." But as Ermine showed surprise at the retention of a companion devoid of this sixth sense, so valuable to the blind, he added—"No one would suit him so well. Mr. Lifford has been with him ever since his sight began to fail, and understands all his ways."
"Yes, that makes a great difference."
"And," pursued the young man, coming to something like life as he talked of his uncle, "though he is not quite all that a companion might be, my uncle says there would be no keeping the living without him, and I do not believe there would, unless my uncle would have me instead."
Ermine laughed and looked interested, not quite knowing what other answer to make. Rachel lifted up her eyebrows in amazement.
"Another advantage," added Alick, who somehow seemed to accept Ermine as one of the family, "is, that he is no impediment to Bessie's living there, for, poor man, he has a wife, but insane."
"Then your sister will live there?" said Rachel. "What an enviable position, to have the control of means of doing good that always falls to the women of a clerical family."
"Tell her so," said the brother, with his odd, suppressed smile.
"What, she does not think so?"
"Now," said Mr. Keith, leaning back, "on my answer depends whether Bessie enters this place with a character for chanting, croquet, or crochet. Which should you like worst, Miss Curtis?"
"I like evasions worst of all," said Rachel, with a flash of something like playful spirit, though there was too much asperity in it.
"But you see, unfortunately, I don't know," said Alick Keith, slowly. "I have never been able to find out, nor she either. I don't know what may be the effect of example," he added. Ermine wondered whether he were in mischief or earnest, and suspected a little of both.
"I shall be very happy to show Miss Keith any of my ways," said Rachel, with no doubts at all; "but she will find me terribly impeded here. When does she come?"
"Not for a month or six weeks, when the wedding will be over. It is high time she saw something of her respected guardian."
"Yes," then to Ermine, "Every one turns to him with reliance and confidence. I believe no one in the army received so many last charges as he has done, or executes them more fully."
"And," said Ermine, feeling pleasure colour her cheek more deeply than was convenient, "you are relations."
"So far away that only a Scotsman would acknowledge the cousinship."
"But do not you call yourself Scotch?" said Ermine, who had for years thought it glorious to do so.
"My great grandfather came from Gowan-brae," said Alick, "but our branch of the family has lived and died in the —th Highlanders for so many generations that we don't know what a home is out of it. Our birthplaces—yes, and our graves—are in all parts of the world."
"Were you ever in Scotland?"
"Never; and I dread nothing so much as being quartered there. Just imagine the trouble it would be to go over the pedigree of every Keith I met, and to dine with them all upon haggis and sheeps' head!"
"There's no place I want to sea as much as Scotland," said Rachel.
"Oh, yes! young ladies always do."
"It is not for a young lady reason," said Rachel, bluntly. "I want to understand the principle of diffused education, as there practised. The only other places I should really care to see are the Grand Reformatory for the Destitute in Holland, and the Hospital for Cretins in Switzerland."
"Scotch pedants, Dutch thieves, Swiss goitres—I will bear your tastes in mind," said Mr. Keith, rising to take leave.
"Really," said Rachel, when he was gone, "if he had not that silly military tone of joking, there might be something tolerable about him if he got into good hands. He seems to have some good notions about his sister. She must be just out of the school-room, at the very turn of life, and I will try to get her into my training and show her a little of the real beauty and usefulness of the career she has before her. How late he has stayed! I am afraid there is no time for the manuscripts."
And though Ermine was too honest to say she was sorry, Rachel did not miss the regret.
Colonel Keith came the next day, and under his arm was a parcel, which was laid in little Rose's arms, and, when unrolled, proved to contain a magnificent wax doll, no doubt long the object of unrequited attachment to many a little Avoncestrian, a creature of beauteous and unmeaning face, limpid eyes, hair that could be brushed, and all her members waxen, as far as could be seen below the provisional habiliment of pink paper that enveloped her. Little Rose's complexion became crimson, and she did not utter a word, while her aunt, colouring almost as much, laughed and asked where were her thanks.
"Oh!" with a long gasp, "it can't be for me!"
"Do you think it is for your aunt?" said the Colonel.
"Oh, thank you! But such a beautiful creature for me!" said Rose, with another gasp, quite oppressed. "Aunt Ermine, how shall I ever make her clothes nice enough?"
"We will see about that, my dear. Now take her into the verandah and introduce her to Violetta."
"Yes;" then pausing and looking into the fixed eyes, "Aunt Ermine, I never saw such a beauty, except that one the little girl left behind on the bench on the esplanade, when Aunt Ailie said I should he coveting if I went on wishing Violetta was like her."
"I remember," said Ermine, "I have heard enough of that 'ne plus ultra' of doll! Indeed, Colin, you have given a great deal of pleasure, where the materials of pleasure are few. No one can guess the delight a doll is to a solitary imaginative child."
"Thank you," he said, smiling.
"I believe I shall enjoy it as much as Rose," added Ermine, "both for play and as a study. Please turn my chair a little this way, I want to see the introduction to Violetta. Here comes the beauty, in Rose's own cloak."
Colonel Keith leant over the back of her chair and silently watched, but the scene was not quite what they expected. Violetta was sitting in her "slantingdicular" position on her chair placed on a bench, and her little mistress knelt down before her, took her in her arms, and began to hug her.
"Violetta, darling, you need not be afraid! There is a new beautiful creature come, and I shall call her Colinette, and we must be very kind to her, because Colonel Keith is so good, and knows your grandpapa; and to tell you a great secret, Violetta, that you must not tell Colinette or anybody, I think he is Aunt Ermine's own true knight."
"Hush!" whispered the Colonel, over Ermine's head, as he perceived her about to speak.
"So you must be very good to her, Violetta, and you shall help me make her clothes; but you need not be afraid I ever could love any one half or one quarter as much as you, my own dear child, not if she were ten times as beautiful, and so come and show her to Augustus. She'll never be like you, dear old darling."
"It is a study," said the Colonel, as Rose moved off with a doll in either hand; "a moral that you should take home."
Ermine shook her head, but smiled, saying, "Tell me, does your young cousin know—"
"Alick Keith! Not from me, and Lady Temple is perfectly to be trusted; but I believe his father knew it was for no worse reason that I was made to exchange. But never mind, Ermine, he is a very good fellow, and what is the use of making a secret of what even Violetta knows?"
There was no debating the point, for her desire of secrecy was prompted by the resolution to leave him unbound, whereas his wish for publicity was with the purpose of binding himself, and Ermine was determined that discussion was above all to be avoided, and that she would, after the first explanation, keep the conversation upon other subjects. So she only answered with another reproving look and smile, and said, "And now I am going to make you useful. The editor of the 'Traveller' is travelling, and has left his work to me. I have been keeping some letters for him to answer in his own hand, because mine betrays womanhood; but I have just heard that he is to stay about six weeks more, and people must be put out of their misery before that. Will you copy a few for me? Here is some paper with the office stamp."
"What an important woman you are, Ermine."
"If you had been in England all this time, you would see how easy the step is into literary work; but you must not betray this for the 'Traveller's' sake or Ailie's."
"Your writing is not very womanish," said the colonel, as she gave him his task. "Or is this yours? It is not like that of those verses on Malvern hills that you copied out for me, the only thing you ever gave me."
"I hope it is more to the purpose than it was then, and it has had to learn to write in all sorts of attitudes."
"What's this?" as he went on with the paper; "your manuscript entitled 'Curatocult.' Is that the word? I had taken it for the produce of Miss Curtis's unassisted genius."
"Have you heard her use it!" said Ermine, disconcerted, having by no means intended to betray Rachel.
"Oh yes! I heard her declaiming on Sunday about what she knows no more about than Conrade! A detestable, pragmatical, domineering girl! I am thankful that I advised Lady Temple only to take the house for a year. It was right she should see her relations, but she must not be tyrannized over."
"I don't believe she dislikes it."
"She dislikes no one! She used to profess a liking for a huge Irishwoman, whose husband had risen from the ranks; the most tremendous woman I ever saw, except Miss Curtis."
"You know they were brought up together like sisters."
"All the worse, for she has the habit of passive submission. If it were the mother it would be all right, and I should be thankful to see her in good keeping, but the mother and sister go for nothing, and down comes this girl to battle every suggestion with principles picked up from every catchpenny periodical, things she does not half understand, and enunciates as if no one had even heard of them before."
"I believe she seldom meets any one who has. I mean to whom they are matters of thought. I really do like her vigour and earnestness."
"Don't say so, Ermine! One reason why she is so intolerable to me is that she is a grotesque caricature of what you used to be."
"You have hit it! I see why I always liked her, besides that it is pleasant to have any sort of visit, and a good scrimmage is refreshing; she is just what I should have been without papa and Edward to keep me down, and without the civilizing atmosphere at the park."
"No, I was not her equal in energy and beneficence, and I was younger when you came. But I feel for her longing to be up and doing, and her puzzled chafing against constraint and conventionality, though it breaks out in very odd effervescences."
"Extremely generous of you when you must be bored to death with her interminable talk."
"You don't appreciate the pleasure of variety! Besides, she really interests me, she is so full of vigorous crudities. I believe all that is unpleasing in her arises from her being considered as the clever woman of the family; having no man nearly connected enough to keep her in check, and living in society that does not fairly meet her. I want you to talk to her, and take her in hand."
"Me! Thank you, Ermine! Why, I could not even stand her talking about you, though she has the one grace of valuing you."
"Then you ought, in common gratitude, for there is no little greatness of soul in patiently coming down to Mackarel Lane to be snubbed by one's cousin's governess's sister."
"If you will come up to Myrtlewood, you don't know what you may do."
"No, you are to set no more people upon me, though Lady Temple's eyes are very wistful."
"I did not think you would have held out against her."
"Not when I had against you? No, indeed, though I never did see anybody more winning than she is in that meek, submissive gentleness! Alison says she has cheered up and grown like another creature since your arrival."
"And Alexander Keith's. Yes, poor thing, we have brought something of her own old world, where she was a sort of little queen in her way. It is too much to ask me to have patience with these relations, Ermine. If you could see the change from the petted creature she was with her mother and husband, almost always the first lady in the place, and latterly with a colonial court of her own, and now, ordered about, advised, domineered over, made nobody of, and taking it as meekly and sweetly as if she were grateful for it! I verily believe she is! But she certainly ought to come away."
"I am not so sure of that. It seems to me rather a dangerous responsibility to take her away from her own relations, unless there were any with equal claims."
"They are her only relations, and her husband had none. Still to be under the constant yoke of an overpowering woman with unfixed opinions seems to be an unmitigated evil for her and her boys; and no one's feelings need be hurt by her fixing herself near some public school for her sons' education. However, she is settled for this year, and at the end we may decide."
With which words he again applied himself to Ermine's correspondence, and presently completed the letter, offering to direct the envelope, which she refused, as having one already directed by the author. He rather mischievously begged to see it that he might judge of the character of the writing, but this she resisted.
However, in four days' time there was a very comical twinkle in his eye, as he informed her that the new number of the "Traveller" was in no favour at the Homestead, "there was such a want of original thought in it." Ermine felt her imprudence in having risked the betrayal, but all she did was to look at him with her full, steady eyes, and a little twist in each corner of her mouth, as she said, "Indeed! Then we had better enliven it with the recollections of a military secretary," and he was both convinced of what he guessed, and also that she did not think it right to tell him; "But," he said, "there is something in that girl, I perceive, Ermine; she does think for herself, and if she were not so dreadfully earnest that she can't smile, she would be the best company of any of the party."
"I am so glad you think so! I shall be delighted if you will really talk to her, and help her to argue out some of her crudities. Indeed she is worth it. But I suppose you will hardly stay here long enough to do her any good."
"What, are you going to order me away?"
"I thought your brother wanted you at home."
"It is all very well to talk of an ancestral home, but when it consists of a tall, slim house, with blank walls and pepper-box turrets, set down on a bleak hill side, and every one gone that made it once a happy place, it is not attractive. Moreover, my only use there would be to be kept as a tame heir, the person whose interference would be most resented, and I don't recognise that duty."
"You are a gentleman at large, with no obvious duty," said Ermine, meditatively.
"What, none?" bending his head, and looking earnestly at her.
"Oh, if you come here out of duty—" she said archly, and with her merry laugh. "There, is not that a nice occasion for picking a quarrel? And seriously," she continued, "perhaps it might be good for you if we did. I am beginning to fear that I ought not to keep you lingering here without purpose or occupation."
"Fulfil my purpose, and I will find occupation."
"Don't say that."
"This once, Ermine. For one year I shall wait in the hope of convincing you. If you do not change, your mind in that time, I shall look for another staff appointment, to last till Rose is ready for me."
The gravity of this conclusion made Ermine laugh. "That's what you learnt of your chief," she said.
"There would be less difference in age," he said. "Though I own I should like my widow to be less helpless than poor little Lady Temple. So," he added, with the same face of ridiculous earnest, "if you continue to reject me yourself, you will at least rear her with an especial view to her efficiency in that capacity."
And as Rose at that critical moment looked in at the window, eager to be encouraged to come and show Colinette's successful toilette, he drew her to him with the smile that had won her whole heart, and listening to every little bit of honesty about "my work" and "Aunt Ermine's work," he told her that he knew she was a very managing domestic character, perfectly equal to the charge of both young ladies.
"Aunt Ermine says I must learn to manage, because some day I shall have to take care of papa."
"Yes," with his eyes on Ermine all the while, "learn to be a useful woman; who knows if we shan't all depend on you by-and-by?"
"Oh do let me be useful to you," cried Rose; "I could hem all your handkerchiefs, and make you a kettle-holder."
Ermine had never esteemed him more highly than when he refrained from all but a droll look, and uttered not one word of the sportive courtship that is so peculiarly unwholesome and undesirable with children. Perhaps she thought her colonel more a gentleman than she had done before, if that were possible; and she took an odd, quaint pleasure in the idea of this match, often when talking to Alison of her views of life and education, putting them in the form of what would become of Rose as Lady Keith; and Colin kept his promise of making no more references to the future. On moving into his lodgings, the hour for his visits was changed, and unless he went out to dinner, he usually came in the evening, thus attracting less notice, and moreover rendering it less easy to lapse into the tender subject, as Alison was then at home, and the conversation was necessarily more general.
The afternoons were spent in Lady Temple's service. Instead of the orthodox dowager britchska and pair, ruled over by a tyrannical coachman, he had provided her with a herd of little animals for harness or saddle, and a young groom, for whom Coombe was answerable. Mrs. Curtis groaned and feared the establishment would look flighty; but for the first time Rachel became the colonel's ally. "The worst despotism practised in England," she said, "is that of coachmen, and it is well that Fanny should be spared! The coachman who lived here when mamma was married, answered her request to go a little faster, 'I shall drive my horses as I plazes,' and I really think the present one is rather worse in deed, though not in word."
Moreover, Rachel smoothed down a little of Mrs. Curtis's uneasiness at Fanny's change of costume at the end of her first year of widowhood, on the ground that Colonel Keith advised her to ride with her sons, and that this was incompatible with weeds. "And dear Sir Stephen did so dislike the sight of them," she added, in her simple, innocent way, as if she were still dressing to please him.
"On the whole, mother," said Rachel, "unless there is more heart-break than Fanny professes, there's more coquetry in a pretty young thing wearing a cap that says, 'come pity me,' than in going about like other people."
"I only wish she could help looking like a girl of seventeen," sighed Mrs. Curtis. "If that colonel were but married, or the other young man! I'm sure she will fall into some scrape; she does not know how, out of sheer innocence."
"Well, mother, you know I always mean to ride with her, and that will be a protection."
"But, my dear, I am not sure about your riding with these gay officers; you never used to do such things."
"At my age, mother, and to take care of Fanny."
And Mrs. Curtis, in her uncertainty whether to sanction the proceedings and qualify them, or to make a protest—dreadful to herself, and more dreadful to Fanny,—yielded the point when she found herself not backed up by her energetic daughter, and the cavalcade almost daily set forth from Myrtlewood, and was watched with eyes of the greatest vexation, if not by kind Mrs. Curtis, by poor Mr. Touchett, to whom Lady Temple's change of dress had been a grievous shock. He thought her so lovely, so interesting, at first; and now, though it was sacrilege to believe it of so gentle and pensive a face, was not this a return to the world? What had she to do with these officers? How could her aunt permit it? No doubt it was all the work of his great foe, Miss Rachel.
It was true that Rachel heartily enjoyed these rides. Hitherto she had been only allowed to go out under the escort of her tyrant the coachman, who kept her in very strict discipline. She had not anticipated anything much more lively with Fanny, her boys, and ponies; but Colonel Keith had impressed on Conrade and Francis that they were their mother's prime protectors, and they regarded her bridle-rein as their post, keeping watch over her as if her safety depended on them, and ready to quarrel with each other if the roads were too narrow for all three to go abreast. And as soon as the colonel had ascertained that she and they were quite sufficient to themselves, and well guarded by Coombe in the rear, he ceased to regard himself as bound to their company, but he and Rachel extended their rides in search of objects of interest. She liked doing the honours of the county, and achieved expeditions which her coachman had hitherto never permitted to her, in search of ruins, camps, churches, and towers. The colonel had a turn for geology, though a wandering life even with an Indian baggage-train had saved him from incurring her contempt for collectors; but he knew by sight the character of the conformations of rocks, and when they had mounted one of the hills that surrounded Avonmouth, discerned by the outline whether granite, gneiss, limestone, or slate formed the grander height beyond, thus leading to schemes of more distant rides to verify the conjectures, which Rachel accepted with the less argument, because sententious dogmatism was not always possible on the back of a skittish black mare.
There was no concealing from herself that she was more interested by this frivolous military society than by any she had ever previously met. The want of comprehension of her pursuits in her mother's limited range of acquaintance had greatly conduced both to her over-weening manner and to her general dissatisfaction with the world, and for the first time she was neither succumbed to, giggled at, avoided, nor put down with a grave, prosy reproof. Certainly Alick Keith, as every one called him, nettled her extremely by his murmured irony, but the acuteness of it was diverting in such a mere lad, and showed that if he could only once be roused, he might be capable of better things. There was an excitement in his unexpected manner of seeing things that was engaging as well as provoking; and Rachel never felt content if he were at Myrtlewood without her seeing him, if only because she began to consider him as more dangerous than his elder namesake, and so assured of his position that he did not take any pains to assert it, or to cultivate Lady Temple's good graces; he was simply at home and perfectly at ease with her.
Colonel Keith's tone was different. He was argumentative where his young cousin was sarcastic. He was reading some of the books over which Rachel had strained her capacities without finding any one with whom to discuss them, since all her friends regarded them as poisonous; and even Ermine Williams, without being shaken in her steadfast trust, was so haunted and distressed in her lonely and unvaried life by the echo of these shocks to the faith of others, that absolutely as a medical precaution she abstained from dwelling on them. On the other hand Colin Keith liked to talk and argue out his impressions, and found in Rachel the only person with whom the subject could be safely broached, and thus she for the first time heard the subjects fairly handled. Hitherto she had never thought that justice was done to the argument except by a portion of the press, that drew conclusions which terrified while they allured her, whereas she appreciated the candour that weighed each argument, distinguishing principle from prejudice, and religious faith from conventional construction, and in this measurement of minds she felt the strength, and acuteness of powers superior to her own. He was not one of the men who prefer unintellectual women. Perhaps clever men, of a profession not necessarily requiring constant brain work, are not so much inclined to rest the mind with feminine empty chatter, as are those whose intellect is more on the strain. At any rate, though Colonel Keith was attentive and courteous to every one, and always treated Lady Temple as a prime minister might treat a queen, his tendency to conversation with Rachel was becoming marked, and she grew increasingly prone to consult him. The interest of this new intercourse quite took out the sting of disappointment, when again Curatocult came back, "declined with thanks." Nay, before making a third attempt she hazarded a question on his opinion of female authorship, and much to her gratification, and somewhat to her surprise, heard that he thought it often highly useful and valuable.
"That is great candour. Men generally grudge whatever they think their own privilege."
"Many things can often be felt and expressed by an able woman better than by a man, and there is no reason that the utterance of anything worthy to be said should be denied, provided it is worthy to be said."
"Ah! there comes the hit. I wondered if you would get through without it."
"It was not meant as a hit. Men are as apt to publish what is not worth saying as women can be, and some women are so conscientious as only to put forth what is of weight and value."
"And you are above wanting to silence them by palaver about unfeminine publicity?"
"There is no need of publicity. Much of the best and most wide-spread writing emanates from the most quiet, unsuspected quarters."
"That is the benefit of an anonymous press."
"Yes. The withholding of the name prevents well-mannered people from treating a woman as an authoress, if she does not proclaim herself one; and the difference is great between being known to write, and setting up for an authoress."
"Between fact and pretension. But write or not write, there is an instinctive avoidance of an intellectual woman."
"Not always, for the simple manner that goes with real superiority is generally very attractive. The larger and deeper the mind, the more there would be of the genuine humbleness and gentleness that a shallow nature is incapable of. The very word humility presupposes depth."
"I see what you mean," said Rachel. "Gentleness is not feebleness, nor lowness lowliness. There must be something held back."
"I see it daily," said Colonel Keith; and for a moment he seemed about to add something, but checked himself, and took advantage of an interruption to change the conversation.
"Superior natures lowly and gentle!" said Rachel to herself. "Am I so to him, then, or is he deceiving himself? What is to be done? At my age! Such a contravention of my principles! A soldier, an honourable, a title in prospect, Fanny's major! Intolerable! No, no! My property absorbed by a Scotch peerage, when I want it for so many things! Never. I am sorry for him though. It is hard that a man who can forgive a woman for intellect, should be thrown back on poor little Fanny; and it is gratifying—. But I am untouched yet, and I will take care of myself. At my age a woman who loves at all, loves with all the gathered force of her nature, and I certainly feel no such passion. No, certainly not; and I am resolved not to be swept along till I have made up my mind to yield to the force of the torrent. Let us see."