"Grace, my dear," said Mrs. Curtis, in one of her most confidential moments, "is not dear Rachel looking very well? I never saw her dress so well put on."
"Yes, she is looking very handsome," said Grace. "I am glad she has consented to have her hair in that now way, it is very becoming to her."
"I—I don't know that it is all the hair," said the mother, faltering, as if half ashamed of herself; "but it seemed to me that we need not have been so uneasy about dear Fanny. I think, don't you? that there may be another attraction. To be sure, it would be at a terrible distance from us; but so good and kind as he is, it would be such a thing for you and Fanny as well—" Grace gave a great start.
"Yes, my dear," Mrs. Curtis gently prosed on with her speculation, "she would be a dreadful loss to us; but you see, so clever and odd as she is, and with such peculiar ideas, I should be so thankful to see her in the hands of some good, sensible man that would guide her."
"But do you really think it is so, mother?"
"Mind, my dear, it is nothing to build on, but I cannot help being struck, and just thinking to myself. I know you'll not say anything."
Grace felt much distressed after this communication had opened her eyes to certain little touches of softening and consciousness that sat oddly enough on her sister. From the first avowal of Colonel Keith's acquaintance with the Williamses, she had concluded him to be the nameless lover, and had been disappointed that Alison, so far from completing the confidence, had become more reserved than ever, leaving her to wonder whether he were indeed the same, or whether his constancy had survived the change of circumstances. There were no grounds on which to found a caution, yet Grace felt full of discomfort and distrust, a feeling shared by Alison, who had never forgiven herself for her half confidence, and felt that it would be wiser to tell the rest, but was withheld by knowing that her motive would actuate her sister to a contrary course. That Colin should detach himself from her, love again, and marry, was what Ermine schooled herself to think fitting; but Alison alternated between indignant jealousy for her sister, and the desire to warn Rachel that she might at best win only the reversion of his heart. Ermine was happy and content with his evening visits, and would not take umbrage at the daily rides, nor the reports of drawing-room warfare, and Alison often wavered between the desire of preparing her, and the doubt whether it were not cruel to inflict the present pain of want of confidence. If that were a happy summer to some at Avonmouth, it was a very trying one to those two anxious, yet apparently uninterested sisters, who were but lookers-on at the game that affected their other selves.
At length, however, came a new feature into the quiet summer life at Avonmouth. Colin looked in on Ermine one morning to announce, with shrugged shoulders, and a face almost making game of himself, that his brother was coming! Lord Keith had been called to London on business, and would extend his journey to come and see what his brother was doing.
"This comes of being the youngest of the family," observed Colin, meditatively. "One is never supposed capable of taking care of one's self. With Keith I shall be the gay extravagant young officer to the end of my days."
"You are not forgiving to your brother," said Ermine.
"You have it in your power to make me so," he said eagerly.
"Then you would have nothing to forgive," she replied, smiling.
Lady Temple's first thought was a renewal of her ardent wish that Ermine should be at Myrtlewood; and that Mackarel Lane, and the governesship should be as much as possible kept out of sight. Even Alison was on her side; not that she was ashamed of either, but she wished that Ermine should see and judge with her own eyes of Colin's conduct, and also eagerly hailed all that showed him still committed to her sister. She was proportionably vexed that he did not think it expedient to harass Ermine with further invitations.
"My brother knows the whole," he said, "and I do not wish to attempt to conceal anything."
"I do not mean to conceal," faltered Fanny, "only I thought it might save a shock—appearances—he might think better of it, if—"
"You thought only what was kind," answered the colonel, "and I thank you for it most warmly; but this matter does not depend on my brother's consent, and even if it did, Ermine's own true position is that which is most honourable to her."
Having said this, he was forced to console Fanny in her shame at her own kind attempt at this gentle little feminine subterfuge. He gratified her, however, by not interfering with her hospitable instincts of doing honour to and entertaining his brother, for whose sake her first approach to a dinner party was given; a very small one, but treated by her and her household as a far more natural occurrence than was any sort of entertainment at the Homestead. She even looked surprised, in her quiet way, at Mrs. Curtis's proffers of assistance in the et ceteras, and gratefully answered for Coombe's doing the right thing, without troubling herself further. Mrs. Curtis was less easy in her mind, her housewifely soul questioned the efficiency of her niece's establishment, and she was moreover persuaded that Lord Keith must be bent on inspecting his brother's choice, while even Rachel felt as if the toils of fate were being drawn round her, and let Grace embellish her for the dinner party, in an odd sort of mood, sometimes rejecting her attempts at decoration, sometimes vouchsafing a glance at the glass, chiefly to judge whether her looks were really as repellently practical and intellectual as she had been in the habit of supposing. The wreath of white roses, which she wore for the first time, certainly had a pleasing and softening effect, and she was conscious that she had never looked so well; then was vexed at the solicitude with which her mother looked her over, and fairly blushed with annoyance at the good lady's evident satisfaction.
But, after all, Rachel, at her best, could not have competed with the grace of the quiet little figure that received them, the rich black silk giving dignity to the slender form, and a sort of compromise between veil and cap sheltering the delicate fair face; and with a son on each side, Fanny looked so touchingly proud and well supported, and the boys were so exultant and admiring at seeing her thus dressed, that it was a very pretty sight, and struck the first arrived of her guests, Mr. Touchett, quite dumb with admiration. Colonel Hammond, the two Keiths, and their young kinsman, completed the party. Lord Keith of Gowanbrae was best described by the said young kinsman's words "a long-backed Scotchman." He was so intensely Scottish that he made his brother look and sound the same, whereas ordinarily neither air nor accent would have shown the colonel's nation, and there was no definable likeness between them, except, perhaps, the baldness of the forehead, but the remains of Lord Keith's hair were silvered red, whereas Colin's thick beard and scanty locks were dark brown, and with a far larger admixture of hoar-frost, though he was the younger by twenty years, and his brother's appearance gave the impression of a far greater age than fifty-eight, there was the stoop of rheumatism, and a worn, thin look on the face, with its high cheek bones, narrow lips, and cold eyes, by no means winning. On the other hand, he was the most finished gentleman that Grace and Rachel had ever encountered; he had all the gallant polish of manner that the old Scottish nobility have inherited from the French of the old regime—a manner that, though Colin possessed all its essentials, had been in some degree rubbed off in the frankness of his military life, but which the old nobleman retained in its full perfection. Mrs. Curtis admired it extremely as a specimen of the "old school," for which she had never ceased to mourn; and Rachel felt as if it took her breath away by the likeness to Louis XIV.; but, strange to say, Lady Temple acted as if she were quite in her element. It might be that the old man's courtesy brought back to her something of the tender chivalry of her soldier husband, and that a sort of filial friendliness had become natural to her towards an elderly man, for she responded at once, and devoted herself to pleasing and entertaining him. Their civilities were something quite amusing to watch, and in the evening, with a complete perception of his tastes, she got up a rubber for him.
"Can you bear it? You will not like to play?" murmured the colonel to her, as he rung for the cards, recollecting the many evenings of whist with her mother and Sir Stephen.
"Oh! I don't mind. I like anything like old times, and my aunt does not like playing—"
No, for Mrs. Curtis had grown up in a family where cards were disapproved, and she felt it a sad fall in Fanny to be playing with all the skill of her long training, and receiving grand compliments from Lord Keith on joint victories over the two colonels. It was a distasteful game to all but the players, for Rachel felt slightly hurt at the colonel's defection, and Mr. Touchett, with somewhat of Mrs. Curtis's feeling that it was a backsliding in Lady Temple, suddenly grew absent in a conversation that he was holding with young Mr. Keith upon—of all subjects in the world—lending library books, and finally repaired to the piano, where Grace was playing her mother's favourite music, in hopes of distracting her mind from Fanny's enormity; and there he stood, mechanically thanking Miss Curtis, but all the time turning a melancholy eye upon the game. Alick Keith, meanwhile, sat himself down near Rachel and her mother, close to an open window, for it was so warm that even Mrs. Curtis enjoyed the air; and perhaps because that watching the colonel had made Rachel's discourses somewhat less ready than usual, he actually obtained an interval in which to speak! He was going the next day to Bishops Worthy, there to attend his cousin's wedding, and at the end of a fortnight to bring his sister for her visit to Lady Temple. This sister was evidently his great care, and it needed but little leading to make him tell a good deal about her. She had, it seemed, been sent home from the Cape at about ten years old, when the regiment went to India, and her brother who had been at school, then was with her for a short time before going out to join the regiment.
"Why," said Rachel, recovering her usual manner, "you have not been ten years in the army!"
"I had my commission at sixteen," he answered.
"You are not six-and-twenty!" she exclaimed.
"You are as right as usual," was the reply, with his odd little smile; "at least till the 1st of August."
"My dear!" said her mother, more alive than Rachel to his amusement at her daughter's knowing his age better than he did himself, but adding, politely, "you are hardly come to the time of life for liking to hear that your looks deceived us."
"Boys are tolerated," he said, with a quick glance at Rachel; but at that moment something many-legged and tickling flitted into the light, and dashed over her face. Mrs. Curtis was by no means a strong-minded woman in the matter of moths and crane-flies, disliking almost equally their sudden personal attentions and their suicidal propensities, and Rachel dutifully started up at once to give chase to the father-long-legs, and put it out of window before it had succeeded in deranging her mother's equanimity either by bouncing into her face, or suspending itself by two or three legs in the wax of the candle. Mr. Keith seconded her efforts, but the insect was both lively and cunning, eluding them with a dexterity wonderful in such an apparently over-limbed creature, until at last it kindly rested for a moment with its wooden peg of a body sloping, and most of its thread-like members prone upon a newspaper, where Rachel descended on it with her pocket-handkerchief, and Mr. Keith tried to inclose it with his hands at the same moment. To have crushed the fly would have been melancholy, to have come down on the young soldier's fingers, awkward; but Rachel did what was even more shocking—her hands did descend on, what should have been fingers, but they gave way under her—she felt only the leather of the glove between her and the newspaper. She jumped and very nearly cried out, looking up with an astonishment and horror only half reassured by his extremely amused smile. "I beg your pardon; I'm so sorry—" she gasped confused.
"Inferior animals can dispense with a member more or less," he replied, giving her the other corner of the paper, on which they bore their capture to the window, and shook it till it took wing, with various legs streaming behind it. "That venerable animal is apparently indifferent to having left a third of two legs behind him," and as he spoke he removed the already half drawn-off left-hand glove, and let Rachel see for a moment that it had only covered the thumb, forefinger, two joints of the middle, and one of the third; the little finger was gone, and the whole hand much scarred. She was still so much dismayed that she gasped out the first question she had ever asked him—
"Not under the handkerchief," he answered, picking it up as if he thought she wanted convincing. "At Delhi, I imagine."
At that moment, Grace, as an act of general beneficence certainly pleasing to her mother, began to sing. It was a stop to all conversation, for Mrs. Curtis particularly disliked talking during singing, and Rachel had to digest her discoveries at her leisure, as soon as she could collect herself after the unnatural and strangely lasting sensation of the solid giving way. So Grace was right, he was no boy, but really older than Fanny, the companion of her childhood, and who probably would have married her had not the general come in the way! Here was, no doubt, the real enemy, while they had all been thinking of Colonel Keith. A man only now expecting his company! It would sound more absurd. Yet Rachel was not wont to think how things would sound! And this fresh intense dislike provoked her. Was it the unsuitability of the young widow remarrying? "Surely, surely, it must not be that womanhood in its contemptible side is still so strong that I want to keep all for myself! Shame! And this may be the true life love, suppressed, now able to revive! I have no right to be disgusted, I will watch minutely, and judge if he will be a good guide and father to the boys, though it may save the colonel trouble. Pish! what have I to do with either? Why should I think about them? Yet I must care for Fanny, I must dislike to see her lower herself even in the eyes of the world. Would it really be lowering herself? I cannot tell, I must think it out. I wish that game was over, or that Grace would let one speak."
But songs and whist both lasted till the evening was ended by Lady Temple coming up to the curate with her winnings and her pretty smile, "Please, Mr. Touchett, let this go towards some treat for the school children. I should not like to give it in any serious way, you know, but just for some little pleasure for them."
If she had done it on purpose, she could not have better freshly riveted his chains. That pensive simplicity, with the smile of heartfelt satisfaction at giving pleasure to anybody, were more and more engaging as her spirits recovered their tone, and the most unsatisfactory consideration which Rachel carried away that evening was that Alexander Keith being really somewhat the senior, if the improvement in Fanny's spirits were really owing to his presence, the objection on the score of age would not hold. But, thought Rachel, Colonel Keith being her own, what united power they should have over Fanny. Pooh! she had by no means resigned herself to have him, though for Fanny's sake it might be well, and was there not a foolish prejudice in favour of married women, that impeded the usefulness of single ones? However, if the stiff, dry old man approved of her for her fortune's sake, that would be quite reason enough for repugnance.
The stiff old man was the pink of courtesy, and paid his respects in due order to his brother's friends the next day, Colin attending in his old aide-de-camp fashion. It was curious to see them together. The old peer was not at all ungracious to his brother; indeed, Colin had been agreeably surprised by an amount of warmth and brotherliness that he had never experienced from him before, as if old age had brought a disposition to cling to the remnant of the once inconveniently large family, and make much of the last survivor, formerly an undesirable youngest favourite, looked on with jealous eyes and thwarted and retaliated on for former petting, as soon as the reins of government fell from the hands of the aged father. Now, the elder brother was kind almost to patronizing, though evidently persuaded that Colin was a gay careless youth, with no harm in him, but needing to be looked after; and as to the Cape, India, and Australia being a larger portion of the world than Gowanbrae, Edinburgh, and London, his lordship would be incredulous to the day of his death.
He paid his formal and gracious visits at Myrtlewood and the Homestead, and then supposed that his brother would wish him to call upon "these unfortunate ladies." Colin certainly would have been vexed if he had openly slighted them; but Alison, whom the brothers overtook on their way into Mackarel Lane, did not think the colonel looked in the most felicitous frame of mind, and thought the most charitable construction might be that he shared her wishes that she could be a few minutes in advance; to secure that neither Rose's sports nor Colinette's toilette were very prominent.
All was right, however; Ermine's taste for the fitness of things had trained Rose into keeping the little parlour never in stiff array, but also never in a state to be ashamed of, and she herself was sitting in the shade in the garden, whither, after the first introduction, Colin and Rose brought seats; and the call, on the whole, went off extremely well. Ermine naver let any one be condescending to her, and conducted the conversation with her usual graceful good breeding, while the colonel, with Rose on his knee, half talked to the child, half listened and watched.
As soon as he had deposited his brother at the hotel, he came back again, and in answer to Ermine's "Well," he demanded, "What she thought of his brother, and if he were what she expected?"
"Very much, only older and feebler. And did he communicate his views of Mackarel Lane? I saw him regarding, me as a species of mermaid or syren, evidently thinking it a great shame that I have not a burnt face. If he had only known about Rose!"
"The worst of it is that he wants me to go home with him, and I am afraid I must do so, for now that he and I are the last in the entail, there is an opportunity of making an arrangement about the property, for which he is very anxious."
"Well, you know, I have long thought it would be very good for you."
"And when I am there I shall have to visit every one in the family;" and he looked into her eyes to see if she would let them show concern, but she kept up their brave sparkle as she still said, "You know you ought."
"Then you deliver me up to Keith's tender mercies till—"
"Till you have done your duty—and forgiven him."
"Remember, Ermine, I can't spend a winter in Scotland. A cold always makes the ball remind me of its presence in my chest, and I was told that if I spent a winter at home, it must be on the Devonshire coast."
"That ball is sufficient justification for ourselves, I allow," she said, that one little word our making up for all that had gone before.
"And meantime you will write to me—about Rose's education."
"To be sure, or what would be the use of growing old?"
Alison felt savage all through this interview. That perfect understanding and the playful fiction about waiting for Rose left him a great deal too free. Ermine might almost be supposed to want to get rid of him, and even when he took leave she only remained for a few minutes leaning her cheek on her hand, and scarcely indulged in a sigh before asking to be wheeled into the house again, nor would she make any remark, save "It has been too bright a summer to last for ever. It would be very wrong to wish him to stay dangling here. Let what will happen, he is himself."
It sounded far too like a deliberate resignation of him, and persuasion that if he went he would not return to be all he had been. However, the departure was not immediate, Lord Keith had taken a fancy to the place and scenery, and wished to see all the lions of the neighbourhood, so that there were various expeditions in the carriages or on horseback, in which he displayed his grand courtesy to Lady Temple, and Rachel enjoyed the colonel's conversation, and would have enjoyed it still more if she had not been tracing a meaning in every attention that he paid her, and considering whether she was committing herself by receiving it. She was glad he was going away that she might have time to face the subject, and make up her mind, for she was convinced that the object of his journey was to make himself certain of his prospects. When he said that he should return for the winter, and that he had too much to leave at Avonmouth to stay long away from it, there must be a meaning in his words.
Ermine had one more visit from Lord Keith, and this time he came alone. He was in his most gracious and courteous mood, and sat talking of indifferent things for some time, of his aunt Lady Alison, and of Beauchamp in the old time, so that Ermine enjoyed the renewal of old associations and names belonging to a world unlike her present one. Then he came to Colin, his looks and his health, and his own desire to see him quit the army.
Ermine assented to his health being hardly fit for the army, and restrained the rising indignation as she recollected what a difference the best surgical advice might have made ten years ago.
And then, Lord Keith said, a man could hardly be expected to settle down without marrying. He wished earnestly to see his brother married, but, unfortunately, charges on his estate would prevent him from doing anything for him; and, in fact, he did not see any possibility of his—of his marrying, except a person with some means.
"I understand," said Ermine, looking straight before her, and her colour mounting.
"I was sure that a person of your great good sense would do so," said Lord Keith. "I assure you no one can be more sensible than myself of the extreme forbearance, discretion, and regard for my brother's true welfare that has been shown here."
Ermine bowed. He did not know that the vivid carmine that made her look so handsome was not caused by gratification at his praise, but by the struggle to brook it patiently.
"And now, knowing the influence over him that, most deservedly, you must always possess, I am induced to hope that, as his sincere friend, you will exert it in favour of the more prudent counsels."
"I have no influence over his judgment," said Ermine, a little proudly.
"I mean," said Lord Keith, forced to much closer quarters, "you will excuse me for speaking thus openly—that in the state of the case, with so much depending on his making a satisfactory choice, I feel convinced, with every regret, that you will feel it to be for his true welfare—as indeed I infer that you have already endeavoured to show him—to make a new beginning, and to look on the past as past."
There was something in the insinuating tone of this speech, increased as it was by the modulation of his Scottish voice, that irritated his hearer unspeakably, all the more because it was the very thing she had been doing.
"Colonel Keith must judge for himself," she said, with a cold manner, but a burning heart.
"I—I understand," said Lord Keith, "that you had most honourably, most consistently, made him aware that—that what once might have been desirable has unhappily become impossible."
"Well," said Ermine.
"And thus," he proceeded, "that the sincere friendship with which you still regard him would prevent any encouragement to continue an attachment, unhappily now hopeless and obstructive to his prospects."
Ermine's eyes flashed at the dictation. "Lord Keith," she said, "I have never sought your brother's visits nor striven to prolong them; but if he finds pleasure in them after a life of disappointment and trouble, I cannot refuse nor discourage them."
"I am aware," said Lord Keith, rising as if to go, "that I have trespassed long on your time, and made a suggestion only warranted by the generosity with which you have hitherto acted."
"One may be generous of one's own, not of other people's," said Ermine.
He looked at her puzzled, then said, "Perhaps it will be best to speak categorically, Miss Williams. Let it be distinctly understood that my brother Colin, in paying his addresses to you, is necessarily without my sanction or future assistance."
"It might not be necessary, my lord. Good morning;" and her courteous bow was an absolute dismissal.
But when Alison came home she found her more depressed than she had allowed herself to be for years, and on asking what was the matter was answered—
"Pride and perverseness, Ailie!" then, in reply to the eager exclamation, "I believe he was justified in all he said. But, Ailie, I have preached to Colin more than I had a right to do about forgiving his brother. I did not know how provoking he can be. I did not think it was still in me to fly out as I did!"
"He had no business to come here interfering and tormenting you," said Alison, hotly.
"I dare say he thought he had! But one could not think of that when it came to threatening me with his giving no help to Colin if—There was no resisting telling him how little we cared!"
"You have not offended him so that he will keep Colin away!"
"The more he tried, the more Colin would come! No, I am not sorry for having offended him. I don't mind him; but Ailie, how little one knows! All the angry and bitter feelings that I thought burnt out for ever when I lay waiting for death, are stirred up as hotly as they were long ago. The old self is here as strong as ever! Ailie, don't tell Colin about this; but to-morrow is a saint's day, and would you see Mr. Touchett, and try to arrange for me to go to the early service? I think then I might better be helped to conquer this."
"But, Ermine, how can you? Eight o'clock, you know."
"Yes, dearest, it will give you a great deal of trouble, but you never mind that, you know; and I am so much stronger than I used to be, that you need not fear. Besides, I want help so much! And it is the day Colin goes away!"
Alison obeyed, as she always obeyed her sister; and Lord Keith, taking his constitutional turn before breakfast on the esplanade, was met by what he so little expected to encounter that he had not time to get out of the way—a Bath chair with Alison walking on one side, his brother on the other. He bowed coldly, but Ermine held out her hand, and he was obliged to come near.
"I am glad to have met you," she said.
"I am glad to see you out so early," he answered, confused.
"This is an exception," she said, smiling and really looking beautiful. "Good-bye, I have thought over what passed yesterday, and I believe we are more agreed than perhaps I gave you reason to think."
There was a queenly air of dignified exchange of pardon in her manner of giving her hand and bending her head as she again said "Good-bye," and signed to her driver to move on.
Lord Keith could only say "Good-bye;" then, looking after her, muttered, "After all, that is a remarkable woman."
CHAPTER VIII. WOMAN'S MISSION DISCOVERED.
"But O unseen for three long years, Dear was the garb of mountaineers To the fair maid of Lorn."—LORD OF THE ISLES.
"Only nerves," said Alison Williams, whenever she was pushed hard as to why her sister continued unwell, and her own looks betrayed an anxiety that her words would not confess. Rachel, after a visit on the first day, was of the same opinion, and prescribed globules and enlivenment; but after a personal administration of the latter in the shape of a discussion of Lord Keith, she never called in the morning without hearing that Miss Williams was not up, nor in the afternoon without Alison's meeting her, and being very sorry, but really she thought it better for her sister to be quite quiet.
In fact, Alison was not seriously uneasy about Ermine's health, for these nervous attacks were not without precedent, as the revenge for all excitement of the sensitive mind upon the much-tried constitution. The reaction must pass off in time, and calm and patience would assist in restoring her; but the interview with Lord Keith had been a revelation to her that her affection was not the calm, chastened, mortified, almost dead thing of the past that she had tried to believe it; but a young, living, active feeling, as vivid, and as little able to brook interference as when the first harsh letter from Gowanbrae had fallen like a thunderbolt on the bright hopes of youth. She looked back at some verses that she had written, when first perceiving that life was to be her portion, where her own intended feelings were ascribed to a maiden who had taken the veil, believing her crusader slain, but who saw him return and lead a recluse life, with the light in her cell for his guiding star. She smiled sadly to find how far the imaginings of four and twenty transcended the powers of four and thirty; and how the heart that had deemed itself able to resign was chafed at the appearance of compulsion. She felt that the right was the same as ever; but it was an increased struggle to maintain the resolute abstinence from all that could bind Colin to her, at the moment when he was most likely to be detached, and it was a struggle rendered the more trying by the monotony of a life, scarcely varied except by the brainwork, which she was often obliged to relinquish.
Nothing, however, here assisted her so much as Lady Temple's new pony carriage which, by Fanny's desire, had been built low enough to permit of her being easily lifted into it. Inert, and almost afraid of change, Ermine was hard to persuade, but Alison, guessing at the benefit, was against her, and Fanny's wistful eyes and caressing voice were not to be gainsaid; so she suffered herself to be placed on the broad easy seat, and driven about the lanes, enjoying most intensely the new scenes, the peeps of sea, the distant moors, the cottages with their glowing orchards, the sloping harvest fields, the variety that was an absolute healing to the worn spirits, and moreover, that quiet conversation with Lady Temple, often about the boys, but more often about Colonel Keith.
Not only Ermine, but other inhabitants of Avonmouth found the world more flat in his absence. Rachel's interest was lessened in her readings after she had lost the pleasure of discussion, and she asked herself many times whether the tedium were indeed from love, or if it were simply from the absence of an agreeable companion. "I will try myself," she said to herself, "if I am heartily interested in my occupations by the end of the next week, then I shall believe myself my own woman!"
But in going back to her occupations, she was more than ordinarily sensible of their unsatisfactoriness. One change had come over her in the last few months. She did not so much long for a wider field, as for power to do the few things within her reach more thoroughly. Her late discussions had, as it were, opened a second eye, that saw two sides of questions that she had hitherto thought had only one, and she was restless and undecided between them, longing for some impulse from within or without, and hoping, for her own dignity and consistency's sake, that it was not only Colonel Keith's presence which had rendered this summer the richest in her life.
A test was coming for her, she thought, in the person of Miss Keith. Judging by the brother, Rachel expected a tall fair dreamy blonde, requiring to be taught a true appreciation of life and its duties, and whether the training of this young girl would again afford her food for eagerness and energy, would, as she said to herself, show whether her affections were still her own. Moreover, there was the great duty of deciding whether the brother were worthy of Fanny!
It chanced to be convenient that Rachel should go to Avoncester on the day of the arrival, and call at the station for the traveller. She recollected how, five months previously, she had there greeted Fanny, and had seen the bearded apparition since regarded, with so much jealousy, and now with such a strangely mixed feeling. This being a far more indifferent errand, she did not go on the platform, but sat in the carriage reading the report of the Social Science Congress, until the travellers began to emerge, and Captain Keith (for he had had his promotion) came up to her with a young lady who looked by no means like his sister. She was somewhat tall, and in that matter alone realized Rachel's anticipations, for she was black-eyed, and her dark hair was crepe and turned back from a face of the plump contour, and slightly rosy complexion that suggested the patches of the last century; as indeed Nature herself seemed to have thought when planting near the corner of the mouth a little brown mole, that added somehow to the piquancy of the face, not exactly pretty, but decidedly attractive under the little round hat, and in the point device, though simple and plainly coloured travelling dress.
"Will you allow me a seat?" asked Captain Keith, when he had disposed of his sister's goods; and on Rachel's assent, he placed himself on the back seat in his lazy manner.
"If you were good for anything, you would sit outside and smoke," said his sister.
"If privacy is required for swearing an eternal friendship, I can go to sleep instead," he returned, closing his eyes.
"Quite the reverse," quoth Bessie Keith; "he has prepared me to hate you all, Miss Curtis."
"On the mutual aversion principle," murmured the brother.
"Don't you flatter yourself! Have you found out, Miss Curtis, that it is the property of this species always to go by contraries?"
"To Miss Curtis I always appear in the meekest state of assent," said Alick.
"Then I would not be Miss Curtis. How horribly you must differ!"
Rachel was absolutely silenced by this cross fire; something so unlike the small talk of her experience, that her mind could hardly propel itself into velocity enough to follow the rapid encounter of wits. However, having stirred up her lightest troops into marching order, she said, in a puzzled, doubtful way, "How has he prepared you to hate us?—By praising us?"
"Oh, no; that would have been too much on the surface. He knew the effect of that," looking in his sleepy eyes for a twinkle of response. "No; his very reserve said, I am going to take her to ground too transcendent for her to walk on, but if I say one word, I shall never get her there at all. It was a deep refinement, you see, and he really meant it, but I was deeper," and she shook her head at him.
"You are always trying which can go deepest?" said Rachel.
"It is a sweet fraternal sport," returned Alick.
"Have you no brother?" asked Bessie.
"Then you don't know what detestable creatures they are," but she looked so lovingly and saucily at her big brother, that Rachel, spite of herself, was absolutely fascinated by this novel form of endearment. An answer was spared her by Miss Keith's rapture at the sight of some soldiers in the uniform of her father's old regiment.
"Have a care, Bessie; Miss Curtis will despise you," said her brother.
"Why should you think so?" exclaimed Rachel, not desirous of putting on a forbidding aspect to this bright creature.
"Have I not been withered by your scorn!"
"I—I—" Rachel was going to say something of her change of opinion with regard to military society, but a sudden consciousness set her cheeks in a flame and checked her tongue; while Bessie Keith, with ease and readiness, filled up the blank.
"What, Alick, you have brought the service into disrepute! I am ashamed of you!"
"Oh, no!" said Rachel, in spite of her intolerable blushes, feeling the necessity of delivering her confession, like a cannon-ball among skirmishers; "only we had been used to regard officers as necessarily empty and frivolous, and our recent experience has—has been otherwise." Her period altogether failed her.
"There, Alick, is that the effect of your weight of wisdom? I shall be more impressed with it than ever. It has redeemed the character of your profession. Captain Keith and the army."
"I am afraid I cannot flatter myself," said Alick; and a sort of reflection of Rachel's burning colour seemed to have lighted on his cheek, "its reputation has been in better hands."
"O Colonel Colin! Depend upon it, he is not half as sage as you, Alick. Why, he is a dozen years older!—What, don't you know, Miss Curtis, that the older people grow the less sage they get?"
"I hope not," said Rachel.
"Do you! A contrary persuasion sustains me when I see people obnoxiously sage to their fellow-creatures."
"Obnoxious sageness in youth is the token that there is stuff behind," said Alick, with eagerness that set his sister laughing at him for fitting on the cap; but Rachel had a sort of odd dreamy perception that Bessie Keith had unconsciously described her (Rachel's) own aspect, and that Alick was defending her, and she was silent and confused, and rather surprised at the assumption of the character by one who she thought could never even exert himself to be obnoxious. He evidently did not wish to dwell on the subject, but began to inquire after Avonmouth matters, and Rachel in return asked for Mr. Clare.
"Very well," was the answer; "unfailing in spirits, every one agreed that he was the youngest man at the wedding."
"Having outgrown his obnoxious sageness," said Bessie.
"There is nothing he is so adroit at as guessing the fate of a croquet-ball by its sound."
"Now Bessie," exclaimed Alick.
"I have not transgressed, have I?" asked Bessie; and in the exclamations that followed, she said, "You see what want of confidence is. This brother of mine no sooner saw you in the carriage than he laid his commands on me not to ask after your croquet-ground all the way home, and the poor word cannot come out of my mouth without—"
"I only told you not to bore Miss Curtis with the eternal subject, as she would think you had no more brains than one of your mallets," he said, somewhat energetically.
"And if we had begun to talk croquet, we should soon have driven him outside."
"But suppose I could not talk it," said Rachel, "and that we have no ground for it."
"Why, then,"—and she affected to turn up her eyes,—"I can only aver that the coincidence of sentiments is no doubt the work of destiny."
"Bessie!" exclaimed her brother.
"Poor old fellow! you had excuse enough, lying on the sofa to the tune of tap and click; but for a young lady in the advanced ranks of civilization to abstain is a mere marvel."
"Surely it is a great waste of time," said Rachel.
"Ah! when I have converted you, you will wonder what people did with themselves before the invention."
"Woman's mission discovered," quoth her brother.
"Also man's, unless he neglects it," returned Miss Elizabeth; "I wonder, now, if you would play if Miss Curtis did."
"Wisdom never pledges itself how it will act in hypothetical circumstances," was the reply.
"Hypothetical," syllabically repeated Bessie Keith; "did you teach him that word, Miss Curtis? Well, if I don't bring about the hypothetical circumstances, you may call me hyperbolical."
So they talked, Rachel in a state of bewilderment, whether she were teased or enchanted, and Alexander Keith's quiet nonchalance not concealing that he was in some anxiety at his sister's reckless talk, but, perhaps, he hardly estimated the effect of the gay, quaint manner that took all hearts by storm, and gave a frank careless grace to her nonsense. She grew graver and softer as she came nearer Avonmouth, and spoke tenderly of the kindness she had received at the time of her mother's death at the Cape, when she had been brought to the general's, and had there remained like a child of the house, till she had been sent home on the removal of the regiment to India.
"I remember," she said, "Mrs. Curtis kept great order. In fact, between ourselves, she was rather a dragon; and Lady Temple, though she had one child then, seemed like my companion and playfellow. Dear little Lady Temple, I wonder if she is altered!"
"Not in the least," returned both her companions at once, and she was quite ready to agree with them when the slender form and fair young face met her in the hall amid a cloud of eager boys. The meeting was a full renewal of the parting, warm and fond, and Bessie so comported herself on her introduction to the children, that they all became enamoured of her on the spot, and even Stephana relaxed her shyness on her behalf. That sunny gay good-nature could not be withstood, and Rachel, again sharing Fanny's first dinner after an arrival, no longer sat apart despising the military atmosphere, but listening, not without amusement, to the account of the humours of the wedding, mingled with Alick Keith's touches of satire.
"It was very stupid," said Bessie, "of none of those girls to have Uncle George to marry them. My aunt fancied he would be nervous, but I know he did marry a couple when Mr. Lifford was away; I mean him to marry me, as I told them all."
"You had better wait till you know whether he will," observed Alick.
"Will? Oh, he is always pleased to feel he can do like other people," returned Bessie, "and I'll undertake to see that he puts the ring on the right—I mean the left finger. Because you'll have to give me away, you know, Alick, so you can look after him."
"You seem to have arranged the programme pretty thoroughly," said Rachel.
"After four weddings at home, one can't but lay by a little experience for the future," returned Bessie; "and after all, Alick need not look as if it must be for oneself. He is quite welcome to profit by it, if he has the good taste to want my uncle to marry him."
"Not unless I were very clear that he liked my choice," said Alick, gravely.
"Oh, dear! Have you any doubts, or is that meant for a cut at poor innocent me, as if I could help people's folly, or as if he was not gone to Rio Janeiro," exclaimed Bessie, with a sort of meek simplicity and unconsciousness that totally removed all the unsatisfactoriness of the speech, and made even her brother smile while he looked annoyed; and Lady Temple quietly changed the conversation. Alick Keith was obliged to go away early, and the three ladies sat long in the garden outside the window, in the summer twilight, much relishing the frank-hearted way in which this engaging girl talked of herself and her difficulties to Fanny as to an old friend, and to Rachel as belonging to Fanny.
"I am afraid that I was very naughty," she said, with a hand laid on Lady Temple's, as if to win pardon; "but I never can resist plaguing that dear anxious brother of mine, and he did so dreadfully take to heart the absurdities of that little Charlie Carleton, as if any one with brains could think him good for anything but a croquet partner, that I could not help giving a little gentle titillation. I saw you did not like it, dear Lady Temple, and I am sorry for it."
"I hope I did not vex you," said Fanny, afraid of having been severe.
"Oh, no, indeed; a little check just makes one feel one is cared for," and they kissed affectionately: "you see when one has a very wise brother, plaguing him is irresistible. How little Stephana will plague hers, in self-defence, with so many to keep her in order."
"They all spoil her."
"Ah, this is the golden age. See what it will be when they think themselves responsible for her! Dear Lady Temple, how could you send him home so old and so grave?"
"I am afraid we sent him home very ill. I never expected to see him so perfectly recovered. I could hardly believe my eyes when Colonel Keith brought him to the carriage not in the least lame."
"Yes; and it was half against his will. He would have been almost glad to be a lay curate to Uncle George, only he knew if he was fit for service my father would have been vexed at his giving up his profession."
"Then it was not his choice!" said Rachel.
"Oh, he was born a soldier, like all the rest of us, couldn't help it. The —th is our home, and if he would only take my hint and marry, I could be with him there, now! Lady Temple, do pray send for all the eligible officers—I don't know any of them now, except the two majors, and Alick suspects my designs, I believe, for he won't tell me anything about them."
"My dear!" said Fanny, bewildered, "how you talk; you know we are living a very quiet life here."
"Oh, yes, so Alick has told me," she said, with a pretty compunction in her tone; "you must be patient with me," and she kissed Fanny's fingers again and spoke in a gentler way. "I am used to be a great chatter-box, and nobody protested but Alick."
"I wish you would tell me about his return, my dear; he seemed so unfit to travel when your poor father came to the hills and took him away by dak. It seemed so impossible he could bear the journey; he could not stand or help himself at all, and had constant returns of fever; but they said the long sea voyage was the only chance, and that in India he could not get vigour enough to begin to recover. I was very unhappy about him," said Fanny, innocently, whilst Rachel felt very vigilant, wondering if Fanny were the cause of the change his sister spoke of.
"Yes, the voyage did him good, but the tidings of papa's death came two months before him, and Uncle George's eyes were in such a state that he had to be kept in the dark, so that no one could go and meet the poor dear boy at Southampton but Mr. Lifford, and the shock of the news he heard brought the fever back, and it went on intermitting for weeks and weeks. We had him at Littleworthy at first, thinking he could be better nursed and more cheerful there, but there was no keeping the house quiet enough."
"Croquet!" said Rachel.
"Everything!" returned Bessie. "Four courtships in more or less progress, besides a few flirtations, and a house where all the neighbours were running in and out in a sociable way. Our loss was not as recent there as it was to him, and they were only nieces, so we could not have interfered with them; besides, my aunt was afraid he would be dull, and wanted to make the most of her conquering hero, and everybody came and complimented him, and catechised him whether he believed in the Indian mutilations, when, poor fellow, he had seen horrors enough never to bear to think of them, except when the fever brought them all over again. I am sure there was excuse enough for his being a little irritable."
"My dear," exclaimed Fanny, quite hurt, "he was patience itself while he was with us."
"That's the difference between illness and recovery, dear Lady Temple! I don't blame him. Any one might be irritable with fresh undetected splinters of bone always working themselves out, all down one side; and doubts which were worse, the fingers on, or the fingers off, and no escape from folly or politeness, for he could not even use a crutch. Oh, no, I don't blame him; I quite excuse the general dislike he took to everything at poor dear Littleworthy. He viewed it all like that child in Mrs. Browning's poem, 'seeing through tears the jugglers leap,' and we have partaken of the juggler aspect to him ever since!"
"I don't think he could ever be very irritable," said Fanny, taking the accusation much to heart.
"Sister and recovery!" lightly said Bessie; "they encounter what no one else does! He only pined for Bishopsworthy, and when we let him move there, after the first month, he and my uncle were happy. I stayed there for a little while, but I was only in the way, the dear good folks were always putting themselves out on my account; and as to Alick, you can't think how the absence of his poor 'souffre-douleur,' invigorated him. Every day I found him able to put more point into his cutting compliments, and reading to my uncle with more energy; till at last by the time the —th came home, he had not so much as a stiff leg to retire upon. Luckily, he and my uncle both cared too much for my poor father's wishes for him to do so without, though if any unlucky chance should take Mr. Lifford away from my uncle, he threatens coming to supply the vacancy, unless I should, and that is past hope."
"Your home is with your uncle," affirmed Rachel.
"Yes," she said, mournfully, "dear Littleworthy was too happy to last. It broke itself up by its own charms—all married and gone, and the last rose of summer in my poor person must float away. Jane wants her mother and not me, and my uncle will submit to me as cheerfully as to other necessary evils. It is not myself that I fear for; I shall be very happy with the dear uncle, but it will be a dreadful overthrow to his habits."
"I do not see why it need be," said Rachel.
"What! two old bachelors with a young lady turned in on them! And the housekeeper—think of her feelings!"
"I do not think you need be uneasy, my dear," said Fanny. "Your brother is convinced that it will be the greatest pleasure and comfort to Mr. Clare to have you; and though there may be difficulties at first, I am sure anybody must be the happier for having you," and she caressed the upturned face, which responded warmly, but with a sigh.
"Alick is no judge! He is the child of the house, and my uncle and Mr. Lifford don't feel complete without him. My uncle is as fond of me as can be, and he and I could get on beautifully, but then Mr. Lifford is impracticable."
"Impracticable?" said Rachel, taking up the long word. "He objects to your exerting yourself in the parish. I know what that is."
"Pray, Rachel," said Fanny, imploringly, "pray don't any anything against him! I am very sorry he has annoyed you, but I do like him."
"Oh, does he play croquet!" cried Bessie.
"I gather," said Rachel, in her impressive tone, a little disappointed, "that by impracticable you mean one who will not play croquet."
"You have hit it!" laughed Bessie. "Who will neither play at croquet, nor let one work except in his way. Well, there are hopes for you. I cure the curates of every cure I come near, except, of course, the cure that touches me most nearly. The shoemaker's wife goes the worst shod! I'll tame yours."
"My dear, I can't have poor Mr. Touchett made game of."
"I won't make game of him, dear Lady Temple, only make him play a game."
"But you said Alick did not approve," said Fanny, with the dimmest possible ideas of what croquet was, and believing it a wicked flirtation trap that figured in "Punch."
"Oh, that's fudge on Master Alick's part! Just the remains of his old miseries, poor fellow. What he wants is love! Now he'll meet his fate some of these days; and as he can't meet three Englishwomen without a mallet in hand, love and croquet will come together."
"Alick is very good," went on Lady Temple, not answering, but arguing with herself whether this opposition could be right. "Colonel Hammond gave me such an account of him, so valuable and excellent among the men, and doing all that is possible for their welfare, interesting himself about their library, and the regimental school and all. The colonel said he wished only that he was a little more easy and popular among the young officers; but so many of his own standing were gone by the time he joined again, that he lives almost too much to himself, reads a good deal, and is most exemplary, but does not quite make his influence as available as it might be."
"That's just it," cried Bessie, eagerly; "the boy is a lazy boy, and wants shaking up, or he'll get savage and no good. Can't you see, by the way he uses his poor little sister, what an awful don Captain Keith must be to a schoolboy of an ensign? He must be taught toleration and hunted into amiability, or he'll be the most terrible Turk by the time he is a colonel; and you are the only person that can do it, dear Lady Temple."
Rachel did not much like this, but it was so prettily and playfully said that the pleasing impression was quite predominant; and when Rachel took leave, it was with a sense of vexation that a person whom she had begun to esteem should be hard upon this bright engaging sister. Yet it might be well if Fanny took note of the admission that he could be irritable as well as stern, and sometimes mistaken in his judgments. What would the Colonel say to all this? The Colonel—here he was coming back again into her imagination. Another symptom!
The brother left the field entirely to his sister for the present; he was a good deal occupied after his leave, and other officers being away, he was detained at Avoncester, and meantime Bessie Keith took all hearts by storm with her gay good humour and eager sympathy. By the end of the first morning she had been to the stable with a swarm of boys, patted, and learnt the names of all the ponies; she was on the warmest terms with the young spaniel, that, to the Curtises' vexation, one of the officers had given Conrade, and which was always getting into the way; she had won Alison by telling her of Mr. Clare's recollections of Ermine's remarkable beauty and intelligence, and charmed Ermine herself by his kind messages and her own sunshiny brightness; she had delighted Mrs. Curtis and Grace by appreciating their views and their flowers; she had discussed hymnals and chants with Mr. Touchett, and promised her services; she had given a brilliant object lesson at Mrs. Kelland's, and received one herself in lace-making; and had proved herself, to Rachel's satisfaction, equally practical and well-read. All the outer world was asking, "Have you seen the young lady with Lady Temple?"
Nothing came amiss to her, from the antiquity of man to Stephana's first words; and whether she taught Grace new stitches, played cricket with Conrade, made boats for Cyril, prattled with Lady Temple, or studied with Rachel, all was done with grace, zest, and sympathy peculiarly her own. Two practisings at the school removed the leaden drawl, and lessened the twang of the choir; and Mr. Touchett looked quite exalted, while even Rachel owned that she had hardly believed her ears.
Rachel and she constituted themselves particular friends, and Grace kept almost aloof in the fear of disturbing them. She had many friends, and this was the first, except Ermine Williams, to whom Rachel had taken, since a favourite companion of her youth had disappointed her by a foolish marriage. Bessie's confidences had a vigour in them that even Rachel's half-way meetings could not check, and then the sharp, clever things she would say, in accordance with Rachel's views, were more sympathetic than anything she had met with. It was another new charm to life.
One great pleasure they enjoyed together was bathing. The Homestead possessed a little cove of its own under the rocks, where there was a bathing-house, and full perfection of arrangement for young ladies' aquatic enjoyment, in safety and absolute privacy. Rachel's vigorous strength and health had been greatly promoted by her familiarity with salt water, and Bessie was in ecstasies at the naiad performances they shared together on the smooth bit of sandy shore, where they dabbled and floated fearlessly. One morning, when they had been down very early to be beforehand with the tide, which put a stop to their enjoyment long before the breakfast hour, Bessie asked if they could not profit by their leisure to climb round the edge of the cliff's instead of returning by the direct path, and Rachel agreed, with the greater pleasure, that it was an enterprise she had seldom performed.
Very beautiful, though adventurous, was the walk—now on the brow of the steep cliff, looking down on the water or on little bays of shingle, now through bits of thicket that held out brambles to entangle the long tresses streaming on their shoulders; always in the brisk morning air, that filled them with strength and spirit, laughing, joking, calling to one another and to Conrade's little dog, that, like every other creature, had attached itself to Bessie, and had followed her from Myrtlewood that morning, to the vexation of Rachel, who had no love for dogs in their early youth.
They were beyond the grounds of the Homestead, but had to go a little further to get into the path, when they paused above a sort of dip or amphitheatre of rock around a little bay, whilst Rachel began telling of the smugglers' traditions that haunted the place—how much brandy and silk had there been landed in the time of the great French war, and how once, when hard pressed, a party of smugglers, taking a short cut in the moonlight midnight across the Homestead gardens, had encountered an escaped Guinea-pig, and no doubt taking it for the very rat without a tail, in whose person Macbeth's witch was to do, and to do, and to do, had been nearly scared out of their wits.
Her story was cut short by a cry of distress from the dog, and looking down, they perceived that the poor fellow had been creeping about the rocks, and had descended to the little cove, whence he was incapable of climbing up again. They called encouragingly, and pretended to move away, but he only moaned more despairingly, and leapt in vain.
"He has hurt his foot!" exclaimed Rachel; "I must go down after him. Yes, Don, yes, poor fellow, I'm coming."
"My dear Curtia, don't leap into the gulf!"
"Oh, it's no great height, and the tide will soon fill up this place."
"Don't! don't! You'll never be able to get up again."
But Rachel was already scrambling down, and, in effect, she was sure-footed and used to her own crags, nor was the distance much above thirty foot, so that she was soon safe on the shingle, to the extreme relief of poor Don, shown by grateful whines; but he was still evidently in pain, and Rachel thought his leg was broken. And how to get up the rock, with a spaniel that when she tried to lift it became apparently twice the size she had always believed it to be, and where both hands as well as feet were required, with the sea fast advancing too?
"My dear Rachel, you will only break your neck, too, it is quite vain to try!"
"If you could just come to that first rock, perhaps I could push him up to you!"
Bessie came to it, but screamed. "Oh, I'm not steady; I couldn't do it! Besides, it would hurt him so, and I know you would fall. Poor fellow, it is very sad; but indeed, Rachel, your life is more precious than a dog's!"
"I can't leave him to drown," said Rachel, making a desperate scramble, and almost overbalancing herself. "Here, if you could only get him by the scrough of his neck, it would not hurt him so much; poor Don, yes, poor fellow!" as he whined, but still showed his confidence in the touching manner of a sensible dog, knowing he is hurt for his good. Bessie made another attempt, but, unused to rocks, she was uneasy about her footing, and merely frightened herself. "Indeed," she said, "I had better run and call some one; I won't be long, and you are really quite safe."
"Yes, quite safe. If you were down here and I above I am sure he could do it easily."
"Ah! but I'm no cragswoman; I'll be back instantly."
"That way, that's the shortest, call to Zack or his father," tried Rachel, as the light figure quickly disappeared, leaving her a little annoyed at her predicament. She was not at all alarmed for herself, there was no real danger of drowning, she could at any moment get up the rock herself if she chose to leave the dog to its fate; but that she could not bear to think of, and she even thought the stimulus of necessity might prove the mother of invention, if succour should not come before that lapping flux and reflux of water should have crept up the shingly beach, on which she stood; but she was anxious, and felt more and more drawn to the poor dog, so suffering, yet so patient and confiding. Nor did she like the awkwardness of being helped in what ought to be no difficulty at all to a native, and would not have been had her companion, been Grace or even Conrade. Her hope was that her ally Zack would come, as she had directed Bessie towards the cottage; but, behold, after a wearily long interval, it was no blue jacket that appeared, but a round black sea-hide hat, and a sort of easy clerical-looking dress, that Bessie was fluttering before!
Few words were required, the stranger's height and length of arms did all that was needful, and Don was placed in safety with less pain and outcry than could have been hoped, Rachel ascending before the polite stranger had time to offer his assistance. The dog's hurt was, he agreed with Rachel, a broken leg, and his offer of carrying it home could not be refused, especially as he touched it with remarkable tenderness and dexterity, adding that with a splint or two, he thought he had surgery enough to set the limb.
They were much nearer the Homestead than to Myrtle-wood, and as it had been already agreed that Bessie should breakfast there, the three bent their steps up the hill as fast as might be, in consideration of Mrs. Curtis's anxieties. Bessie in a state of great exultation and amusement at the romantic adventure, Rachel somewhat put out at the untoward mishap that obliged her to be beholden to one of the casual visitors, against whom her mother had such a prejudice.
Still, the gentleman himself was far from objectionable, in appearance or manner; his air was that of an educated man, his dress that of a clergyman at large, his face keen. Rachel remembered to have met him once or twice in the town within the last few days, and wondered if he could be a person who had called in at the lace school and asked so many questions that Mrs. Kelland had decided that he could be after no good; he must be one of the Parliament folks that they sent down to take the bread out of children's mouths by not letting them work as many hours as was good for them. Not quite believing in a Government commission on lace-making grievances, Rachel was still prepared to greet a kindred spirit of philanthropy, and as she reflected more, thought that perhaps it was well that an introduction had been procured on any terms.
So she thawed a little, and did not leave all the civility to Miss Keith, but graciously responded to the stranger's admiration of the views, the exquisite framings of the summer sea and sky made by tree, rock, and rising ground, and the walks so well laid out on the little headland, now on smooth turf, now bordering slopes wild with fern and mountain ash, now amid luxuriant exotic shrubs that attested the mildness of Avonmouth winters.
When they came near the front of the house, Rachel took man and dog in through the open window of her own sitting-room, and hastened to provide him with bandages and splints, leaving Bessie to reassure Mrs. Curtis that no human limbs were broken, and that no one was even wet to the skin; nay, Bessie had even the tact to spare Mrs. Curtis the romantic colouring that delighted herself. Grace had followed Rachel to assist at the operation, and was equally delighted with its neatness and tenderness, as well as equally convinced of the necessity of asking the performer first to wash his hands and then to eat his breakfast, both which kind proposals he accepted with diffident gratitude, first casting a glance around the apartment, which, though he said nothing, conveyed that he was profoundly struck with the tokens of occupation that it contained. The breakfast was, in the first place, a very hungry one; indeed, Bessie had been too ravenous to wait till the surgery was over, and was already arrived at her second egg when the others appeared, and the story had again to be told to the mother, and her warm thanks given. Mrs. Curtis did not like strangers when they were only names, but let her be brought in contact, and her good nature made her friendly at once, above all in her own house. The stranger was so grave and quiet too, not at all presuming, and making light of his services, but only afraid he had been trespassing on the Homestead grounds. These incursions of the season visitors were so great a grievance at the Homestead that Mrs. Curtis highly approved his forbearance, whilst she was pleased with his tribute to her scenery, which he evidently admired with an artistic eye. Love of sketching had brought him to Avonmouth, and before he took leave, Mrs. Curtis had accorded him that permission to draw in her little peninsula for which many a young lady below was sighing and murmuring. He thanked her with a melancholy look, confessing that in his circumstances his pencil was his toy and his solace.
"Once again, that landscape painter!" exclaimed Bessie, with uplifted hands, as soon as both he and Mrs. Curtis were out of earshot, "an adventure at last."
"Not at all," said Rachel, gravely; "there was neither alarm nor danger."
"Precisely; the romance minus the disagreeables. Only the sea monster wanting. Young Alcides, and rock—you stood there for sacrifice, I was the weeping Dardanian dames."
Even Grace could not help laughing at the mischief of the one, and the earnest seriousness of the other.
"Now, Bessie, I entreat that you will not make a ridiculous story of a most simple affair," implored Rachel.
"I promise not to make one, but don't blame me if it makes itself."
"It cannot, unless some of us tell the story."
"What, do you expect the young Alcides to hold his tongue? That is more than can be hoped of mortal landscape painter."
"I wish you would not call him so. I am sure he is a clergyman."
"Landscape painter, I would lay you anything you please."
"Nay," said Grace, "according to you, that is just what he ought not to be."
"I do not understand what diverts you so much," said Rachel, growing lofty in her displeasure. "What matters it what the man may be?"
"That is exactly what we want to see," returned Bessie.
Poor Rachel, a grave and earnest person like her, had little chance with one so full of playful wit and fun as Bessie Keith, to whom her very dignity and susceptibility of annoyance made her the better game. To have involved the grave Rachel in such a parody of an adventure was perfectly irresistible to her, and to expect absolute indifference to it would, as Grace felt, have been requiring mere stupidity. Indeed, there was forbearance in not pushing Rachel further at the moment; but proceeding to tell the tale at Myrtlewood, whither Grace accompanied Bessie, as a guard against possible madcap versions capable of misconstruction.
"Yes," said Rachel to herself, "I see now what Captain Keith regrets. His sister, with all her fine powers and abilities, has had her tone lowered to the hateful conventional style of wit that would put me to the blush for the smallest mishap. I hope he will not come over till it is forgotten, for the very sight of his disapproval would incite her further. I am glad the Colonel is not here. Here, of course, he is in my imagination. Why should I be referring everything to him; I, who used to be so independent? Suppose this nonsense gave him umbrage? Let it. I might then have light thrown on his feelings and my own. At any rate, I will not be conscious. If this stranger be really worth notice, as I think he is, I will trample on her ridicule, and show how little I esteem it."
CHAPTER IX. THE NEW SPORT
"'Sire,' I replied, 'joys prove cloudlets, Men are the merest Ixions.' Here the King whistled aloud, 'Let's, Heigho, go look at our lions!' Such are the sorrowful chances If you talk fine to King Francis."—R. BROWNING.
The day after Rachel's adventure with Don a card came into the drawing-room, and therewith a message that the gentleman had availed himself of Mrs. Curtis's kind permission, and was sketching the Spinster's Needles, two sharp points of red rock that stood out in the sea at the end of the peninsula, and were specially appropriated by Rachel and Grace.
The card was written, not engraved, the name "Rd. R. H. C. L. Mauleverer;" and a discussion ensued whether the first letters stood for Richard or for Reverend, and if he could be unconscionable enough to have five initials. The sisters had some business to transact at Villars's, the Avonmouth deposit of literature and stationery, which was in the hands of a somewhat aspiring genius, who edited the weekly paper, and respected Miss Rachel Curtis in proportion to the number of periodicals she took in, and the abstruseness of the publications she inquired after. The paper in its Saturday's dampness lay fresh on the counter, and glancing at the new arrivals, Grace had the desired opportunity of pointing to Mr. Mauleverer's name, and asking when he had come. About a week since, said the obliging Mr. Villars, he appeared to be a gentleman of highly literary and artistic tastes, a philanthropist; indeed, Mr. Villars understood him to be a clerical gentlemen who had opinions—
"Oh, Rachel, I am very sorry," said Grace.
"Sorry, what for?"
"Why, you and mamma seemed quite inclined to like him."
"Well, and what have we heard?"
"Not much that is rational, certainly," said Grace, smiling; "but we know what was meant."
"Granting that we do, what is proved against him? No, I will not say proved, but alleged. He is one of the many who have thought for themselves upon the perplexing problems of faith and practice, and has been sincere, uncompromising, self-sacrificing, in avowing that his mind is still in that state of solution in which all earnest and original minds must be ere the crystallizing process sets in. Observe, Grace, I am not saying for an instant that he is in the right. All I do say is, that when depth of thought and candour have brought misfortune upon a man, it is ungenerous, therefore, to treat him as if he had the leprosy."
"Indeed, Rachel, I think you have made more out of his opinions than I did."
"I was only arguing on your construction of his opinions."
"Take care—!" For they were at this moment reaching a gate of Myrtlewood, and the sound of hoofs came close behind them. They were those of the very handsome chestnut, ridden by Alexander Keith, who jumped off his horse with more alacrity than usual as they were opening the gate for him, and holding out his hand, eagerly said—
"Then I conclude there is nothing the matter?"
"Nothing at all," said Grace. "What did you hear?"
"Only a little drowning, and a compound fracture or two," said he, relapsing into his languid ease as he gave his bridle to a groom, and walked with them towards the house.
"There, how very annoying!" exclaimed Rachel, "though, of course, the smallest adventure does travel."
"I may venture to hope that neither are you drowned, nor my sister's leg broken, nor a celebrated professor and essayist 'in a high fever wi' pulling any of you out of the sea.'"
"There, Grace," exclaimed Rachel; "I told you he was something distinguished."
"My dear Rachel, if his celebrity be in proportion to the rest of the story."
"Then there really was a rescue!" exclaimed Captain Keith, now with much more genuine anxiety; and Rachel recollecting her desire that the right version should have the precedence, quickly answered, "There was no danger, only Don slipped down into that curved cove where we walked one day with the boys. I went down after him, but he had broken his leg. I could not get up with him in my arms, and Bessie called some one to help me."
"And why could not Bessie help you herself?"
"Oh! strangers can never climb on our slippery rocks as we can."
"Moreover, it would have spoilt the predicament," muttered the brother to himself; then turning round with a smile, "And is the child behaving herself?"
Grace and Rachel answered in a eager duet how she was charming every one, so helpful, so kind, so everything.
"Ah!" he said with real satisfaction, apparent in the eyes that were so pleasant when open wide enough to be visible; "I knew she always did better when I was not there."
They were by this time entering the hall, which, in the confident fashion of the sea-side, stood open; and at the moment Fanny came tripping downstairs with her dress looped up, and a shady hat on her head, looking fearfully girlish, thought her cousins, though her attire was still rigidly black.
"Oh, I am so glad to see you; Don is so much better, Rachel, and Conrade wants to thank you. He went up yesterday, and was so sorry you were out. Might it not have been dreadful, Alick? I have been so wanting to tell you how very delightful that dear sister of yours is. All the boys are distracted about her. Come out please. She has been teaching the boys such a delightful game; so much nicer than cricket, for I can play with them."
Alick and Rachel could not but exchange a glance, and at the same moment, emerging through the screen of shrubs on the lawn, Bessie Keith, Conrade, Francis, and Leoline, were seen each with a mallet in hand and a gay ball in readiness to be impelled through the hoops that beset the lawn.
"And you really are learning croquet!" exclaimed innocent Grace; "well, it makes a beautiful ground."
"Croquet!" exclaimed poor Lady Temple, with startled eyes; "you don't really mean that it is croquet! O Bessie, Bessie!"
"Ah! I didn't mean you to have come so soon," said the much amused Bessie, as she gave her hand in greeting. "I meant the prejudice to be first conquered. See, dear Lady Temple, I'm not ashamed; this whitey brown moustache is going to kiss me nevertheless and notwithstanding."
And so it certainly did, and smiled into the bargain, while the boys came clamouring up, and after thanks for Don's preservation, began loudly to beg mamma would come, they could not make up their sides without her, but mamma was distressed and unhappy.
"Not now, my dears—I must—I must. Indeed I did not know."
"Now, Alick, I trust to your generosity," said Bessie, finding that they must be pacified. "Coming, Con—Come, Grace, come and convince Lady Temple that the pastime is not too wicked for you."
"Indeed, Alick," Lady Temple was saying. "I am very sorry, I won't allow it one moment if you think it is objectionable."
"But I don't," said Alick, smiling. "Far from it. It is a capital game for you and your boys."
"I thought—I thought you disapproved and could not bear it," said Lady Temple, wondering and wistful.
"Can't bear is not disapprove. Indeed," seeing that gentle earnest alone could console her, "there is no harm in the game itself. It is a wholly personal distaste, arising from my having been bored with it when I was ill and out of spirits."
"But is not there something about it in 'Punch?'" she still asked, so anxiously, that it was impossible not to smile; but there was not a particle of that subdued mockery that was often so perplexing in him, as he replied, "Certainly there is about its abuse as an engine for flirtation, which, to tell you the truth, was what sickened me with the sight at Littleworthy; but that is not the line Con and Francie will take just yet. Why, my uncle is specially addicted to listening to croquet, and knows by the step and sound how each player is getting on, till he is quite an oracle in disputed hits."
"So Bessie told me," said Fanny, still feeling that she had been taken in and the brother unkindly used; "but I can't think how she could, when you don't like it."
"Nobody is bound to respect foolish prejudices," said Alick, still quite in earnest. "It would have been very absurd not to introduce it."
"Come, Alick," said Bessie, advancing, "have you absolved her, and may we begin? Would it not be a generous act of amnesty if all the present company united in a match?"
"Too many," said Alick, "odd numbers. I shall go down and call on Miss Williams. May I come back, Lady Temple, and have a holiday from the mess?"
"I shall be very glad; only I am afraid there is no dinner."
"So much the better. Only let me see you begin, or I shall never dare to express an opinion for the future."
"Mamma, do pray, pray begin; the afternoon is wasting like nothing!" cried Conrade of the much-tried patience. "And Aunt Rachel," he added, in his magnanimity, "you shall be my partner, and I'll teach you."
"Thank you, Conrade, but I can't; I promised to be at home at four," said Rachel, who had all this time been watching with curious interest which influence would prevail—whether Alick would play for Fanny's sake, or Fanny abstain for Alick's sake. She was best satisfied as it was, but she had still to parry Bessie Keith's persuasive determination. Why would she go home? it certainly was to inspect the sketches of the landscape-painter. "You heard, Alick, of the interesting individual who acted the part of Rachel's preserver," she added.
The very force of Rachel's resolution not to be put out of countenance served to cover her with the most uncomfortable blushes, all the more at the thought of her own unlucky exclamation. "I came here," said Alick, coolly, "to assist in recovering the beloved remains from a watery grave;" and then, as Bessie insisted on hearing the Avoncester version, he gave it; while Grace added the intelligence that the hero was a clergyman, sinking the opinions, as too vague to be mentioned, even had not the company been too flighty for a subject she thought serious and painful. "And he is at this moment sketching the Spinster's Needles!" said Bessie. "Well, I am consoled. With all your resolve to flatten down an adventure, fate is too strong for you. Something will come of it. Is not the very resolve that it shall not be an adventure a token?"
"If any one should wish to forget it, it is you, I think, Bessie," said Alick. "Your admirable sagacity seems to have been at fault. I thought you prided yourself on your climbing."
"Up a slippery perpendicular—"
"I know the place," he gravely answered.
"Well," exclaimed Bessie, recovering herself, "I am not a mermaid nor even a dear gazelle, and, in my humble opinion, there was far more grace in preventing heroism from being 'unwept, unnoticed, and unsung,' than in perilling my own neck, craning down and strangling the miserable beast, by pulling him up by the scrough of his neck! What an introduction would have been lost!"
"If you are going to play, Bessie," said her brother, "it would be kind to take pity upon those boys."
"One achievement is mine," she said, dancing away backwards, her bright eyes beaming with saucy merriment, "the great Alexander has bidden me to croquet."
"I am afraid," said her brother, turning to Rachel as she departed, "that it was all her fault. Pray be patient with her, she has had many disadvantages."
His incomprehensible irony had so often perplexed Rachel, that she did not know whether his serious apologetic tone were making game of her annoyance, and she answered not very graciously, "Oh, never mind, it did not signify." And at the same time came another urgent entreaty from the boys that the two "aunts" would join the game, Conrade evidently considering that partnership with him would seal the forgiveness Aunt Rachel had won by the rescue of Don.
Grace readily yielded, but Rachel pleaded her engagement, and when the incorrigible Bessie declared that they perfectly understood that nothing could compete with the sketch of the Spinster's Needles, she answered, "I promised to write a letter for my mother on business before post time. The Burnaby bargain," she explained, to add further conviction.
"A business-like transaction indeed!" exclaimed Bessie, much diverted with the name.
"Only a bit of land in trust for apprenticing poor children," said Rachel. "It was left by a Curtis many generations ago, in trust to the rector of the parish and the lord of the manor; and poor Mr. Linton is so entirely effete, that it is virtually in our hands. It is one of the vexations of my life that more good cannot be done with it, for the fees are too small for superior tradespeople, and we can only bind them to the misery of lacemaking. The system belongs to a worn-out state of things."
The word system in Rachel's mouth was quite sufficient to send Bessie to her croquet, and the poor boys were at length rewarded for their unusual patience. Their mother had been enduring almost as much as they did in her dislike to see them tantalised, and she now threw herself into the game with a relish that proved that as yet, at least, Conrade's approbation was more to her than Captain Keith's. It was very pretty to see her so pleased with her instructions, so eager about her own game, and yet so delighted with every hit of her boys; while Bessie was an admirable general, playing everybody's game as well as her own, and with such life and spirit, such readiness and good nature, that a far duller sport would have been delicious under her management.
"Poor Alick," said she, meeting him when he again strolled into the garden, while the boys were collecting the mallets and balls; "he did think he had one lawn in the world undefiled by those horrible hoops!" then as she met his smile of amusement and pardon, "but it was so exactly what they wanted here. It is so good for Lady Temple and her boys to have something they can do together."
The pleased affectionate smile was gone.
"I object to nothing but its being for her good," he said gravely.
"But now, does not it make her very happy, and suit her excellently?"
"May be so, but that is not the reason you introduced it."
"You have a shocking habit of driving one up into corners, Alick, but it shall be purely, purely for my own selfish delight," and she clasped her hands in so droll an affectation of remorse, that the muscles round his eyes quivered with diversion, though the hair on his lip veiled what the corners of his mouth were about; "if only," she proceeded, "you won't let it banish you. You must come over to take care of this wicked little sister, or who knows what may be the consequences."
"I kept away partly because I was busy, and partly because I believe you are such a little ape as always to behave worse when you have the semblance of a keeper;" he said, with his arm fondly on her shoulder as they walked.
"And in the mean time fell out the adventure of the distinguished essayist."
"I am afraid," he returned, "that was a gratuitous piece of mischief, particularly annoying to so serious and thoughtful a person as Miss Rachel Curtis."
"Jealousy?" exclaimed Bessie in an ecstatic tone. "You see what you lost by not trusting me, to behave myself under the provocation of your presence."
"What! the pleasure of boxing your ears for a coward?"
"Of seizing the happy opening! I am very much afraid for you now, Alick," she proceeded with mock gravity. "What hope can a poor Captain of Highlanders, even if he does happen to be a wounded hero or two, have against a distinguished essayist and landscape painter; if it were a common case indeed, but where Wisdom herself is concerned—"
"Military frivolity cannot hope," returned Alick, with a shake of his head, and a calm matter-of-fact acquiescent tone.
"Ah, poor Alick," pursued his sister, "you always were a discreet youth; but to be connected with such a union of learning, social science, and homeaopathy, soared beyond my utmost ambition. I suppose the wedding tour—supposing the happy event to take place—will be through a series of model schools and hospitals, ending in Hanwell."
"No," said Alick, equally coolly, "to the Dutch reformatory, and the Swiss cretin asylum."
She was exceedingly tickled at his readiness, and proceeded in a pretended sentimental tone, "I am glad you have revealed the secrets of your breast. I saw there was a powerful attraction and that you were no longer your own, but my views were humbler. I thought the profound respect with which you breathed the name of Avonmouth, was due to the revival of the old predilection for our sweet little—"
"Hush, Bessie," said her brother, roused for the first time into sternness, "this is more than nonsense. One word more of this, and you will cut me off from my greatest rest and pleasure."
"From the lawn where croquet waits his approbation," was on Bessie's tongue, but she did not say it. There were moments when she stood in fear of her brother. He paused, and as if perceiving that his vehemence was in itself suspicious, added, "Remember, I never met her from seven years old till after her marriage. She has been the kindest of friends in right of our fathers' old friendship. You know how her mother nursed me, and the sister she was to me. And Bessie, if your selfishness—I wish I could call it thoughtlessness—involves her innocent simplicity in any scrape, derogatory to what is becoming her situation, I shall find it very hard to forgive you, and harder still to forgive myself for letting you come here."
Bessie pouted for a moment, but her sweetness and good humour were never away. "There, you have given your wicked little sister a screed," she said, looking insinuatingly up at him. "Just as if I did not think her a darling, and would not for the world do anything to spoil her. Have not I been leading the most exemplary life, talking systems and visiting cottages with Rachel and playing with the boys, and singing with the clergyman; and here am I pounced on, as if I were come to be the serpent in this anti-croquet paradise."
"Only a warning, Bessie."
"You'll be better now you have had it out. I've seen you suppressing it all this time, for fear of frightening me away."
Every one knows how the afternoon croquet match on the Myrtlewood Lawn became an institution, though with some variation in the observers thereof, owing to the exigencies of calls, rides, and Ermine Williams's drive, which Lady Temple took care should happen at least twice a week. The most constant votaries of the mallet and hoop were, of course, the two elder boys, the next pair being distant worshippers only now and then admitted by special favour, but the ardour of their mother even exceeded that of Bessie Keith, and it was always a disappointment to her if she were prevented from playing. Grace and Alison Williams frequently took their share with enjoyment, though not with the same devotion, and visitors, civil and military, also often did their part, but the most fervent of all these was Mr. Touchett. Ever since that call of his, when, after long impatience of his shy jerks of conversation and incapacity of taking leave, Miss Keith had exclaimed, "Did you ever play at croquet? do come, and we will teach you," he had been its most assiduous student. The first instructions led to an appointment for more, one contest to another, and the curate was becoming almost as regular a croquet player as Conrade himself, not conversing much but sure to be in his place; and showing a dexterity and precision that always made Lady Temple pleased to have him on her side, and exclaim with delight at his hits as a public benefit to the cause, or thank him with real gratitude when he croqued her or one of her sons out of a difficulty.