Mr. Mauleverer came, with a good report of the children's progress, and talking quite enthusiastically of Lovedy's sweetness and intelligence. Perhaps she would turn out a superior artist, now that chill penury no longer repressed her noble rage, and he further brought a small demand for drawing materials and blocks for engraving, to the amount of five pounds, which Rachel defrayed from the general fund, but sighed over its diminution.
"If I could only make the Barnaby bargain available," she said; "it is cruel to have it tied up to mere apprenticeships, which in the present state of things are absolutely useless, or worse."
"Can nothing be done?"
"You shall hear. Dame Rachel Curtis, in 1605, just when this place was taking up lace-making, an art learnt, I believe, from some poor nuns that were turned out of St. Mary's, at Avoncester, thought she did an immense benefit to the place by buying the bit of land known as Burnaby's Bargain, and making the rents go yearly to apprentice two poor girls born of honest parents. The rent is fourteen pounds, and so the fees are so small that only the small lace-makers here will accept them. I cannot get the girls apprenticed to anything better in the towns except for a much larger premium."
"Do I understand you that such a premium is at present to be bestowed?"
"No, not till next June. The two victims for this year have been sacrificed. But perhaps another time it might be possible to bind them to you as a wood engraver or printer!" cried Rachel, joyfully.
"I should be most happy. But who would be the persons concerned?"
"The trustees are the representative of our family and the rector of the parish—not Mr. Touchett (this is only a district), but poor old Mr. Linton at Avonbridge, who is barely able to sign the papers, so that practically it all comes to me."
"Extremely fortunate for the objects of the charity."
"I wish it were so; but if it could only be made available in such a cause as ours, I am sure my good namesake's intentions would be much better carried out than by binding these poor girls down to their cushions. I did once ask about it, but I was told it could only be altered by Act of Parliament."
"Great facilities have of late been given," said Mr. Mauleverer, "many old endowments have most beneficially extended their scope. May I ask where the land in question is?"
"It is the level bit of meadow just by the river, and all the slope down to the mouth; it has always been in our hands, and paid rent as part of the farm. You know how well it looks from the garden-seat, but it always grieves me when people admire it, for I feel as if it were thrown away."
"Ah! I understand. Perhaps if I could see the papers I could judge of the feasibility of some change."
Rachel gladly assented, and knowing where to find the keys of the strong box, she returned in a short space with a parcel tied up with, red tape, and labelled "Barnaby's Bargain."
"I have been thinking," she exclaimed, as she came in, "that that piece of land must have grown much more valuable since this rent was set on it! Fourteen pounds a year, why we never thought of it; but surely in such a situation, it would be worth very much more for building purposes."
"There can be no doubt. But your approach, Miss Curtis?"
"If it is a matter of justice to the charity, of course that could not be weighed a moment. But we must consider what is to be done. Get the land valued, and pay rent for it accordingly? I would give it up to its fate, and let it for what it would bring, but it would break my mother's heart to see it built on."
"Perhaps I had better take the papers and look over them. I see they will need much consideration."
"Very well, that will be the best way, but we will say nothing about it till we have come to some conclusion, or we shall only startle and distress my mother. After all, then, I do believe we have the real income of the F. U. E. E. within our very hands! It might be ten times what it is now."
Rachel was in higher spirits than ever. To oblige the estate to pay L140 a year to the F. U. E. E. was beyond measure delightful, and though it would be in fact only taking out of the family pocket, yet that was a pocket she could not otherwise get at. The only thing for which she was sorry was that Mr. Mauleverer had an appointment, and could not come with her to call on Mr. Mitchell; but instead of this introduction, as she had sworn herself to secrecy rather than worry her mother till the ways and means were matured, she resolved, by way of compensation, upon going down to impart to Ermine Williams this grave reformation of abuses, since this was an afternoon when there was no chance of meeting the Colonel.
Very happy did she feel in the hope that had come to crown her efforts at the very moment when she had actually and tangibly given up a pleasure, and closed a door opening into worldly life, and she was walking along with a sense of almost consecrated usefulness, to seek her companion in the path of maiden devotion, when in passing the gates of Myrtlewood, she was greeted by Captain Keith and his bright-eyed sister, just coming forth together.
A few words told that they were all bound for Mackarel Lane, actuated by the same probability of finding Miss Williams alone, the Colonel being absent.
"Wonderfully kind to her he is," said Rachel, glad to praise him to convince herself that she did not feel bitter; "he takes that little girl out walking with him every morning."
"I wonder if his constancy will ever be rewarded?" said Bessie, lightly; then, as Rachel looked at her in wonder and almost rebuke for so direct and impertinent a jest, she exclaimed, "Surely you are not in ignorance! What have I done? I thought all the world knew—all the inner world, that is, that revels in a secret."
"Knew what?" said Rachel, unavoidable intolerable colour rushing into her face.
"Why the romance of Colin and Ermine! To live on the verge of such a—a tragi-comedy, is it? and not be aware of it, I do pity you."
"The only wonder is how you knew it," said her brother, in a tone of repression.
"I! Oh, it is a fine thing to be a long-eared little pitcher when one's elders imagine one hears nothing but what is addressed to oneself. There I sat, supposed to be at my lessons, when the English letters came in, and I heard papa communicating to mamma how he had a letter from old Lord Keith—not this one but one older still—the father of him—about his son's exchange—wanted papa to know that he was exemplary and all that, and hoped he would be kind to him, but just insinuated that leave was not desirable—in fact it was to break off an affair at home. And then, while I was all on fire to see what a lover looked like, comes another letter, this time to mamma, from Lady Alison something, who could not help recommending to her kindness her dear nephew Colin, going out broken-hearted at what was feared would prove a fatal accident, to the dearest, noblest girl in the world, for so she must call Ermine Williams. Ermine was a name to stick in one's memory if Williams was not, and so I assumed sufficient certainty to draw it all out of dear Lady Temple."
"She knows then?" said Rachel, breathlessly, but on her guard.
"Know? Yes, or she could hardly make such a brother of the Colonel. In fact, I think it is a bit of treachery to us all to keep such an affair concealed, don't you?" with a vivid flash out of the corner of her eyes.
"Treachery not to post up a list of all one's—"
"One's conquests?" said Bessie, snatching the word out of her brother's mouth. "Did you ever hear a more ingenious intimation of the number one has to boast?"
"Only in character," calmly returned Alick.
"But do not laugh," said Rachel, who had by this time collected herself; "if this is so, it must be far too sad and melancholy to be laughed about."
"So it is," said Alick, with a tone of feeling. "It has been a mournful business from the first, and I do not see how it is to end."
"Why, I suppose Colonel Colin is his own master now," said Bessie; "and if he has no objection I do not see who else can make any."
"There are people in the world who are what Tennyson calls 'selfless,'" returned Alick.
"Then the objection comes from her?" said Rachel, anxiously.
"So saith Lady Temple," returned Bessie.
They were by this time in Mackarel Lane. Rachel would have given much to have been able to turn back and look this strange news in the face, but consciousness and fear of the construction that might be put on her change of purpose forced her on, and in a few moments the three were in the little parlour, where Ermine's station was now by the fire. There could be no doubt, as Rachel owned to herself instantly, that there was a change since she first had studied that face. The bright colouring, and far more, the active intellect and lively spirit, had always obviated any expression of pining or invalidism; but to the air of cheerfulness was added a look of freshened health and thorough happiness, that rendered the always striking features absolutely beautiful; more so, perhaps, than in their earliest bloom; and the hair and dress, though always neat, and still as simply arranged as possible, had an indescribable air of care and taste that added to the effect of grace and pleasantness, and made Rachel feel convinced in a moment that the wonder would have been not in constancy to such a creature but in inconstancy. The notion that any one could turn from that brilliant, beaming, refined face to her own, struck her with a sudden humiliation. There was plenty of conversation, and her voice was not immediately wanted; indeed, she hardly attended to what was passing, and really dreaded outstaying the brother and sister. When Ermine turned to her, and asked after Lovedy Kelland in her new home, she replied like one in a dream, then gathered herself up and answered to the point, but feeling the restraint intolerable, soon rose to take leave.
"So soon?" said Ermine; "I have not seen you for a long time."
"I—I was afraid of being in the way," said Rachel, the first time probably that such a fear had ever suggested itself to her, and blushing as Ermine did not blush.
"We are sure to be alone after twilight," said Ermine, "if that is not too late for you, but I know you are much occupied now."
Somehow that invalid in her chair had the dignity of a queen appointing her levee, and Rachel followed the impulse of thanking and promising, but then quickly made her escape to her own thoughts.
"Her whole soul is in that asylum," said Ermine, smiling as she went. "I should like to hear that it is going on satisfactorily, but she does not seem to have time even to talk."
"The most wonderful consummation of all," observed Bessie.
"No," said Ermine, "the previous talk was not chatter, but real effervescence from the unsatisfied craving for something to do."
"And has she anything to do now?" said Bessie.
"That is exactly what I want to know. It would be a great pity if all this real self-devotion were thrown away."
"It cannot be thrown away," said Alick.
"Not on herself," said Ermine, "but one would not see it misdirected, both for the waste of good energy and the bitter disappointment."
"Well," said Bessie, "I can't bear people to be so dreadfully in earnest!"
"You are accountable for the introduction, are not you?" said Ermine.
"I'm quite willing! I think a good downfall plump would be the most wholesome thing that could happen to her; and besides, I never told her to take the man for her almoner and counsellor! I may have pointed to the gulf, but I never bade Curtia leap into it."
"I wish there were any one to make inquiries about this person," said Ermine; "but when Colonel Keith came it was too late. I hoped she might consult him, but she has been so much absorbed that she really has never come in his way."
"She would never consult any one," said Bessie.
"I am not sure of that," replied Ermine. "I think that her real simplicity is what makes her appear so opinionated. I verily believe that there is a great capability of humility at the bottom."
"Of the gulf," laughed Bessie; but her brother said, "Quite true. She has always been told she is the clever woman of the family, and what can she do but accept the position?"
"Exactly," said Ermine; "every one has given way to her, and, of course, she walks over their bodies, but there is something so noble about her that I cannot but believe that she will one day shake herself clear of her little absurdities."
"That is contrary to the usual destiny of strong-minded women," said Bessie.
"She is not a strong-minded woman, she only has been made to believe herself one," said Ermine, warmly.
With this last encounter, Bessie and her brother took leave, and the last at once exclaimed, in sentimental tones, "Generous rivals! I never saw so good a comedy in all my days! To disclose the fatal truth, and then bring the rival fair ones face to face!"
"If that were your belief, Bessie, the demon of teasing has fuller possession of you than I knew."
"Ah! I forgot," exclaimed Bessie, "it is tender ground with you likewise. Alas! Alick, sisterly affection cannot blind me to the fact of that unrequited admiration for your honourable rival."
"What, from the strong-minded Curtia?"
"Ah! but have we not just heard that this is not the genuine article, only a country-made imitation? No wonder it was not proof against an honourable colonel in a brown beard."
"So much the better; only unluckily there has been a marked avoidance of him."
"Yes; the Colonel was sacrificed with all other trivial incidents at the shrine of the F. U. L. E.—E. E., I mean. And only think of finding out that one has been sacrificing empty air after all—and to empty air!"
"Better than to sacrifice everything to oneself," said Alick.
"Not at all. The latter practice is the only way to be agreeable! By-the-bye, Alick, I wonder if she will deign to come to the ball?"
"Your ball at Avoncester. It is what I am staying on for! Major McDonald all but promised me one; and you know you must give one before you leave this place."
"Don't you know that poor Fraser has just been sent for home on his sister's death?"
"But I conclude the whole regiment does not go into mourning?"
"No, but Fraser is the one fellow to whom this would be real enjoyment. Indeed, I particularly wish no hints may be given about it. Don't deny, I know you have ways of bringing about what you wish, and I will not have them used here. I know something of the kind must be done before we leave Avoncester, but to give one this autumn would be much sooner than needful. I believe there is hardly an officer but myself and Fraser to whom the expense would not be a serious consideration, and when I tell you my father had strong opinions about overdoing reciprocities of gaiety, and drawing heavily on the officers' purses for them, I do not think you will allow their regard for him to take that manifestation towards you."
"Of course not," said Bessie, warmly; "I will not think of it again. Only when the fate does overtake you, you will have me here for it, Alick?"
He readily promised, feeling gratified at the effect of having spoken to his sister with full recognition of her good sense.
Meantime Rachel was feeling something of what Bessie ascribed to her, as if her sacrifice had been snatched away, and a cloud placed in its stead. Mortification was certainly present, and a pained feeling of having been made a fool of, whether by the Colonel or herself, her candid mind could hardly decide; but she was afraid it was by herself. She knew she had never felt sure enough of his attentions to do more than speculate on what she would do if they should become more pointed, and yet she felt angry and sore at having been exposed to so absurd a blunder by the silence of the parties concerned. "After all," she said to herself, "there can be no great harm done, I have not been weak enough to commit my heart to the error. I am unscathed, and I will show it by sympathy for Ermine. Only—only, why could not she have told me?"
An ordeal was coming for which Rachel was thus in some degree prepared. On the return of the party from the book club, Mrs. Curtis came into Rachel's sitting-room, and hung lingering over the fire as if she had something to say, but did not know how to begin. At last, however, she said, "I do really think it is very unfair, but it was not his fault, he says."
"Who?" said Rachel, dreamily.
"Why, Colonel Keith, my dear," said good Mrs. Curtis, conceiving that her pronominal speech had "broken" her intelligence; "it seems we were mistaken in him all this time."
"What, about Miss Williams?" said Rachel, perceiving how the land lay; "how did you hear it?"
"You knew it, my dear child," cried her mother in accents of extreme relief.
"Only this afternoon, from Bessie Keith."
"And Fanny knew it all this time," continued Mrs. Curtis. "I cannot imagine how she could keep it from me, but it seems Miss Williams was resolved it should not be known. Colonel Keith said he felt it was wrong to go on longer without mentioning it, and I could not but say that it would have been a great relief to have known it earlier."
"As far as Fanny was concerned it would," said Rachel, looking into the fire, but not without a sense of rehabilitating satisfaction, as the wistful looks and tone of her mother convinced her that this semi-delusion had not been confined to herself.
"I could not help being extremely sorry for him when he was telling me," continued Mrs. Curtis, as much resolved against uttering the idea as Rachel herself could be. "It has been such a very long attachment, and now he says he has not yet been able to overcome her scruples about accepting him in her state. It is quite right of her, I can't say but it is, but it is a very awkward situation."
"I do not see that," said Rachel, feeling the need of decision in order to reassure her mother; "it is very sad and distressing in some ways, but no one can look at Miss Williams without seeing that his return has done her a great deal of good; and whether they marry or not, one can only be full of admiration and respect for them."
"Yes, yes," faltered Mrs. Curtis; "only I must say I think it was due to us to have mentioned it sooner."
"Not at all, mother. Fanny knew it, and it was nobody's concern but hers. Pray am I to have Owen's 'Palaeontology'?"
"No, Colonel Keith bought that, and some more of the solid books. My dear, he is going to settle here; he tells me he has actually bought that house he and his brother are in."
"Yes; he says, any way, his object is to be near Miss Williams. Well, I cannot think how it is to end, so near the title as he is, and her sister a governess, and then that dreadful business about her brother, and the little girl upon her hands. Dear me, I wish Fanny had any one else for a governess."
"So do not I," said Rachel. "I have the greatest possible admiration for Ermine Williams, and I do not know which I esteem most, her for her brave, cheerful, unrepining unselfishness, or him for his constancy and superiority to all those trumpery considerations. I am glad to have the watching of them. I honour them both."
Yes, and Rachel honoured herself still more for being able to speak all this freely and truly out of the innermost depths of her candid heart.
CHAPTER XIV. THE GOWANBRAE BALL.
"Your honour's pardon, I'd rather have my wounds to heal again, Than hear say how I got them."—Coriolanus.
"Yes, I go the week after next."
"So soon? I thought you were to stay for our ball."
"Till this time next year! No, no, I can't quite do that, thank you."
"This very winter."
"Oh, no—no such thing! Why, half the beauty and fashion of the neighbourhood is not come into winter quarters yet. Besides, the very essence of a military ball is that it should be a parting—the brightest and the last. Good morning."
And Meg's head, nothing loth, was turned away from the wide view of the broad vale of the Avon, with the Avoncester Cathedral towers in the midst, and the moors rising beyond in purple distance. The two young lieutenants could only wave their farewells, as Bessie cantered merrily over the soft smooth turf of the racecourse, in company with Lord Keith, the Colonel, and Conrade.
"Do you not like dancing?" inquired Lord Keith, when the canter was over, and they were splashing through a lane with high hedges.
"I'm not so unnatural," returned Bessie, with a merry smile, "but it would never do to let the Highlanders give one now. Alick has been telling me that the expense would fall seriously on a good many of them."
"True," said Colonel Keith, "too many fetes come to be a heavy tax."
"That is more consideration than is common in so young a lad," added Lord Keith.
"Yes, but dear Alick is so full of consideration," said the sister, eagerly. "He does not get half the credit for it that he deserves, because, you know, he is so quiet and reserved, and has that unlucky ironical way with him that people don't like; especially rattlepates like those," pointing with her whip in the direction of the two young officers.
"It is a pity," said the Colonel, "it lessens his influence. And it is strange I never perceived it before his return to England."
"Oh! there's much owing to the habitual languor of that long illness. That satirical mumble is the only trouble he will take to lift up his testimony, except when a thing is most decidedly his duty, and then he does it as England expects."
"And he considered it his duty to make you decline this ball?" said Lord Keith.
"Oh, not his more than mine," said Bessie. "I don't forget that I am the Colonel's daughter."
No more was said on that occasion, but three days after cards were going about the county with invitations from Lord Keith to an evening party, with "Dancing." Lord Keith averred, with the full concurrence of his brother, that he owed many civilities to the ladies of the neighbourhood, and it was a good time to return them when he could gratify the young kinswoman who had showed such generous forbearance about the regimental ball. It was no unfavourable moment either, when he had his brother to help him, for the ordering of balls had been so much a part of Colin's staff duties, that it came quite naturally to him, especially with Coombe within reach to assist. There was some question whether the place should be the public rooms or Gowanbrae, but Bessie's vote decided on the latter, in consideration of the Colonel's chest. She was rather shocked, while very grateful, at the consequences of the little conversation on the hill top, but she threw herself into all the counsels with bright, ardent pleasure, though carefully refraining from any presumption that she was queen of the evening.
Lady Temple received an invitation, but never for one moment thought of going, or even supposed that any one could imagine she could. Indeed, if she had accepted it, it would have been a decisive encouragement to her ancient suitor, and Colin saw that he regarded her refusal, in its broad black edges, as a further clenching of the reply to his addresses.
Bessie was to be chaperoned by Mrs. Curtis. As to Rachel, she had resolved against youthful gaieties for this winter and all others, but she felt that to show any reluctance to accept the Keith invitation might be a contradiction to her indifference to the Colonel, and so construed by her mother, Grace, and Bessie. So all she held out for was, that as she had no money to spend upon adornments, her blue silk dinner dress, and her birthday wreath, should and must do duty; and as to her mother's giving her finery, she was far too impressive and decided for Mrs. Curtis to venture upon such presumption. She was willing to walk through her part for an evening, and indeed the county was pretty well accustomed to Miss Rachel Curtis's ball-room ways, and took them as a matter of course.
Gowanbrae had two drawing-rooms with folding doors between, quite practicable for dancing, and the further one ending in a conservatory, that likewise extended along the end of the entrance hall and dining-room. The small library, where Colonel Keith usually sat, became the cloak-room, and contained, when Mrs. Curtis and her daughters arrived, so large a number of bright cashmere cloaklets, scarlet, white, and blue, that they began to sigh prospectively at the crowd which, Mrs. Curtis would have encountered with such joyful valour save for that confidence on the way home from the book club.
They were little prepared for the resources of a practised staff-officer. Never had a ball even to them looked so well arranged, or in such thorough style, as a little dexterous arrangement of flowers, lights, and sofas, and rendered those two rooms. The two hosts worked extremely well. Lord Keith had shaken off much of his careless stoop and air of age, and there was something in his old-world polish and his Scotch accent that gave a sort of romance to the manner of his reception. His brother, with his fine brow, and thoughtful eyes, certainly appeared to Rachel rather thrown away as master of the ceremonies, but whatever he did, he always did in the quietest and best way, and receptions had been a part of his vocation, so that he infused a wonderful sense of ease, and supplied a certain oil of good breeding that made everything move suavely. Young ladies in white, and mothers in all the colours of the rainbow, were there in plenty, and, by Bessie's special command, the scene was enlivened by the Highland uniform, with the graceful tartan scarf fastened across the shoulder with the Bruce brooch.
Rachel had not been long in the room before she was seized on by Emily Grey, an enthusiastic young lady of the St. Norbert's neighbourhood, whom she met seldom, but was supposed to know intimately.
"And they say you have the hero here—the Victoria Cross man—and that you know him. You must show him to me, and get me introduced."
"There is no Victoria Cross man here," said Rachel, coldly. "Colonel Keith did not have one."
"Oh, no, I don't mean Colonel Keith, but Captain Alexander Keith, quite a young man. Oh, I am sure you remember the story—you were quite wild about it—of his carrying the lighted shell out of the hospital tent; and they told me he was always over here, and his sister staying with Lady Temple."
"I know Captain Alexander Keith," said Rachel, slowly; "but you must be mistaken, I am certain I should know if he had a Victoria Cross."
"It is very odd; Charlie told me it was the same," said Miss Grey, who, like all others, was forced to bend to Rachel's decisive manner.
"Scottish names are very common," said Rachel, and at that moment a partner came and carried Emily off.
But as Rachel stood still, an odd misgiving seized her, a certain doubt whether upon the tall lazy figure that was leaning against a wall nearly opposite to her, talking to another officer, she did not see something suspiciously bronze and eight-pointed that all did not wear. There was clearly a medal, though with fewer clasps than some owned; but what else was there? She thought of the lecture on heroism she had given to him, and felt hot all over. Behold, he was skirting the line of chaperons, and making his way towards their party. The thing grew more visible, and she felt more disconcerted than ever had been her lot before; but escape there was none, here he was shaking hands.
"You don't polk?" he said to her. "In fact, you regard all this as a delusion of weak minds. Then, will you come and have some tea?"
Rachel took his arm, still bewildered, and when standing before him with the tea-cup in her hand, she interrupted something he was saying, she knew not what, with, "That is not the Victoria Cross?"
"Then it is, like all the rest, a delusion," he answered, in his usual impassive manner.
"And gained," she continued, "by saving the lives of all those officers, the very thing I told you about!"
"You told me that man was killed."
"Then it was not you!"
"Perhaps they picked up the pieces of the wrong one."
"But if you would only tell me how you gained it."
"By the pursuit of conchology."
"Then it was yourself?" again said Rachel, in her confusion.
"If I be I as I suppose I be," he replied, giving her his arm again, and as they turned towards the conservatory, adding, "Many such things have happened, and I did not know whether you meant this."
"That was the reason you made so light of it."
"What, because I thought it was somebody else?"
"No, the contrary reason; but I cannot understand why you let me go on without telling me."
"I never interfere when a story is so perfect in itself."
"But is my story perfect in itself?" said Rachel, "or is it the contrary?"
"No one knows less of the particulars than I do," he answered. "I think your version was that it was an hospital tent that the shell came into. It was not that, but a bungalow, which was supposed to be out of range. It stood on a bit of a slope, and I thought I should have been able to kick the shell down before it had time to do mischief."
"But you picked it up, and took it to the door—I mean, did you?" said Rachel, who was beginning to discover that she must ask Alick Keith a direct question, if she wished to get an answer, and she received a gesture of assent.
"I was very blind," she said, humbly, "and now I have gone and insisted to poor Emily Grey that you never did any such thing."
"Thank you," he said; "it was the greatest kindness you could do me."
"Ah! your sister said you had the greatest dislike to hero worship."
"A natural sense of humbug," he said. "I don't know why they gave me this," he added, touching his cross, "unless it was that one of the party in the bungalow had a turn for glorifying whatever happened to himself. Plenty of more really gallant things happened every day, and were never heard of, and I, who absolutely saw next to nothing of the campaign, have little right to be decorated."
"Ah!" said Rachel, thoughtfully, "I have always wondered whether one would be happier for having accomplished an act of heroism."
"I do not know," said Alick, thoughtfully; then, as Rachel looked up with a smile of amazement, "Oh, you mean this; but it was mere self-preservation. I could hardly even have bolted, for I was laid up with fever, and was very shaky on my legs."
"I suppose, however," said Rachel, "that the vision of one's life in entering the army would be to win that sort of distinction, and so young."
"Win it as some have done," said Alick, "and deserve what is far better worth than distinction. That may be the dream, but, after all, it is the discipline and constant duty that make the soldier, and are far more really valuable than exceptional doings."
"People must always be ready for them, though," said Rachel
"And they are," said Alick, with grave exultation in his tone.
Then, after a pause, she led back the conversation to its personal character, by saying. "Do you mean that the reception of this cross was no gratification to you?"
"No, I am not so absurd," he replied, but he added sadly, "That was damped quite otherwise. The news that I was named for it came almost in the same breath with that of my father's death, and he had not heard I was to receive it."
"Ah! I can understand."
"And you can see how intolerable was the fuss my good relations made with me just when the loss was fresh on me, and with that of my two chief friends, among my brother officers, fellows beside whom I was nobody, and there was my uncle's blindness getting confirmed. Was not that enough to sicken one with being stuck up for a lion, and constantly poked up by the showwoman, under pretext of keeping up one's spirits!"
"And you were—I mean were you—too ill to escape?"
"I was less able to help myself than Miss Williams is. There had been a general smash of all the locomotive machinery on this side, and the wretched monster could do nothing but growl at his visitors."
"Should you growl very much if I introduced you to Emily Grey? You see it is a matter of justice and truth to tell her now, after having contradicted her so flatly. I will wait to let you get out of the way first if you like, but I think that would be unkind to her; and if you ever do dance, I wish you would dance with her."
"With all my heart," he answered.
"Oh, thank you," said Rachel, warmly.
He observed with some amusement Rachel's utter absence of small dexterities, and of even the effort to avoid the humiliation of a confession of her error. Miss Grey and a boy partner had wandered into the conservatory, and were rather dismally trying to seem occupied with the camellias when Rachel made her way to them, and though he could not actually hear the words, he knew pretty well what they were. "Emily, you were right after all, and I was mistaken," and then as he drew near, "Miss Grey, Captain Keith wishes to be introduced to you."
It had been a great shock to Rachel's infallibility, and as she slowly began working her way in search of her mother, after observing the felicity of Emily's bright eyes, she fell into a musing on the advantages of early youth in its indiscriminating powers of enthusiasm for anything distinguished for anything, and that sense of self-exaltation in any sort of contact with a person who had been publicly spoken of. "There is genuine heroism in him," thought Rachel, "but it is just in what Emily would never appreciate—it is in the feeling that he could not help doing as he did; the half-grudging his reward to himself because other deeds have passed unspoken. I wonder whether his ironical humour would allow him to see that Mr. Mauleverer is as veritable a hero in yielding hopes of consideration, prospects, honours, to his sense of truth and uprightness. If he would only look with an unprejudiced eye, I know he would be candid."
"Are you looking for Mrs. Curtis?" said Colonel Keith. "I think she is in the other room."
"Not particularly, thank you," said Rachel, and she was surprised to find how glad she was to look up freely at him.
"Would it be contrary to your principles or practice to dance with me?"
"To my practice," she said smilingly, "so let us find my mother. Is Miss Alison Williams here? I never heard whether it was settled that she should come," she added, resolved both to show him her knowledge of his situation, and to let her mother see her at her ease with him.
"No, she was obstinate, though her sister and I did our utmost to persuade her, and the boys were crazy to make her go."
"I can't understand your wishing it."
"Not as an experience of life? Alison never went to anything in her girlhood, but devoted herself solely to her sister, and it would be pleasant to see her begin her youth."
"Not as a mere young lady!" exclaimed Rachel.
"That is happily not possible."
An answer that somewhat puzzled Rachel, whose regard for him was likely to be a good deal dependent upon his contentment with Alison's station in life.
"I must say young ladyhood looks to the greatest advantage there," Rachel could not help exclaiming, as at that moment Elizabeth Keith smiled at them, as she floated past, her airy white draperies looped with scarlet ribbons; her dark hair turned back and fastened by a snood of the same, an eagle's feather clasped in it by a large emerald, a memory of her father's last siege—that of Lucknow.
"She is a very pretty creature," said the Colonel, under the sparkle of her bright eyes.
"I never saw any one make the pursuits of young ladyhood have so much spirit and meaning," added Rachel. "Here you see she has managed to make herself sufficiently like other people, yet full of individual character and meaning."
"That is the theory of dress, I suppose," said the Colonel.
"If one chooses to cultivate it."
"Did you ever see Lady Temple in full dress?"
"No; we were not out when we parted as girls."
"Then you have had a loss. I think it was at our last Melbourne ball, that when she went to the nursery to wish the children good night, one of them—Hubert, I believe—told her to wear that dress when she went to heaven, and dear old Sir Stephen was so delighted that he went straight upstairs to kiss the boy for it."
"Was that Lady Temple?" said Alick Keith, who having found Miss Grey engaged many deep, joined them again, and at his words came back a thrill of Rachel's old fear and doubt as to the possible future.
"Yes," said the Colonel; "I was recollecting the gracious vision she used to be at all our chief's parties."
"Vision, you call her, who lived in the house with her? What do you think she was to us—poor wretches—coming up from barracks where Mrs. O'Shaughnessy was our cynosure? There was not one of us to whom she was not Queen of the East, and more, with that innocent, soft, helpless dignity of hers!"
"And Sir Stephen for the first of her vassals," said the Colonel.
"What a change it has been!" said Alick.
"Yes; but a change that has shown her to have been unspoilable. We were just agreeing on the ball-room perfections of her and your sister in their several lines."
"Very different lines," said Alick, smiling.
"I can't judge of Fanny's," said Rachel, "but your sister is almost enough to make one believe there can be some soul in young lady life."
"I did not bring Bessie here to convert you," was the somewhat perplexing answer.
"Nor has she," said Rachel, "except so far as I see that she can follow ordinary girls' pursuits without being frivolous in them." Alick bowed at the compliment.
"And she has been a sunbeam," added Rachel, "we shall all feel graver and cloudier without her."
"Yes," said Colonel Keith, "and I am glad Mr. Clare has such a sunbeam for his parsonage. What a blessing she will be there!" he added, as he watched Bessie's graceful way of explaining to his brother some little matter in behalf of the shy mother of a shy girl. Thinking he might be wanted, Colonel Keith went forward to assist, and Rachel continued, "I do envy that power of saying the right thing to everybody!"
"Don't—it is the greatest snare," was his answer, much amazing her, for she had her mind full of the two direct personal blunders she had made towards him.
"It prevents many difficulties and embarrassments."
"Very desirable things."
"Yes; for those that like to laugh, but not for those that are laughed at," said Rachel.
"More so; the worst of all misfortunes is to wriggle too smoothly through life."
This was to Rachel the most remarkable part of the evening; as to the rest, it was like all other balls, a weariness: Grace enjoying herself and her universal popularity, always either talking or dancing, and her mother comfortable and dutiful among other mothers; the brilliant figure and ready grace of Bessie Keith being the one vision that perpetually flitted in her dreams, and the one ever-recurring recollection that Captain Keith, the veritable hero of the shell, had been lectured by her on his own deed! In effect Rachel had never felt so beaten down and ashamed of herself; so doubtful of her own most positive convictions, and yet not utterly dissatisfied, and the worst of it was that Emily Grey was after all carried off without dancing with the hero; and Rachel felt as if her own opinionativeness had defrauded the poor girl.
Other balls sent her home in a state of weariness, disgust, and contempt towards every one, but this one had resulted in displeasure with herself, yet in much interest and excitement; and, oh, passing strange! through that same frivolous military society.
Indeed the military society was soon in better odour with her than the clerical. She had been making strenuous efforts to get to St. Herbert's, with Mr. Mitchell, for some time past, but the road was in a state of being repaired, and the coachman was determined against taking his horses there. As to going by train, that was equally impossible, since he would still less have driven her to the station, finally, Rachel took the resolute stop of borrowing Fanny's pony carriage, and driving herself and the clergyman to the station, where she was met by Mrs. Morris, the mother of one of the girls, to whom she had promised such a visit, as it had been agreed that it would be wisest not to unsettle the scholars by Christmas holidays.
The F. U. E. E. was in perfect order; the little girls sat upon a bench with their copies before them, Mrs. Rawlins in the whitest of caps presided over them, and Mr. Mauleverer was very urbane, conducting the visitors over the house himself, and expatiating on his views of cleanliness, ventilation, refinement, and equality of cultivation, while Mrs. Rawlins remained to entertain Mrs. Morris. Nothing could be more practical and satisfactory; some admirable drawings of the children's were exhibited, and their conduct was said to be excellent; except, Mr. Mauleverer remarked unwillingly, that there was a tendency about little Mary to fancy herself injured, and he feared that she was not always truthful; but these were childish faults, that he hoped would pass away with further refinement, and removal from the lower influences of her home.
After this, Rachel was not surprised that poor, ignorant, and always deplorable Mrs. Morris did not seem in raptures with the state of her child, but more inclined to lament not having seen more of her, and not having her at home. That was quite in accordance with peasant shortsightedness and ingratitude, but it was much more disappointing that Mr. Mitchell said little or nothing of approbation; asked her a few questions about her previous knowledge of Mr. Mauleverer and Mrs. Rawlins, and when she began to talk of arranging for some one or two of his London orphans, thanked her rather shortly, but said there was no way of managing it. It was evident that he was quite as prejudiced as others of his clerical brethren, and the more Rachel read of current literature, the more she became convinced of their bondage to views into which they durst not examine, for fear honesty should compel them to assert their conclusions.
She had hoped better things from the stranger, but she began to be persuaded that all her former concessions to the principles infused in her early days were vain entanglements, and that it was merely weakness and unwillingness to pain her mother that prevented her from breaking through them.
She could not talk this out with anybody, except now and then an utterance to the consenting Mr. Mauleverer, but in general she would have been shocked to put these surging thoughts into words, and Bessie was her only intimate who would avow that there could be anything to be found fault with in a clergyman. When alone together, Bessie would sometimes regretfully, sometimes in a tone of amusement, go over bits of narrow-minded folly that had struck her in the clergy, and more especially in her uncle's curate, Mr. Lifford, whose dryness was, she owned, very repulsive to her.
"He is a good creature," she said, "and most necessary to my uncle, but how he and I are to get through life together, I cannot tell. It must soon be tried, though! After my visit at Bath will come my home at Bishopsworthy!" And then she confided to Rachel all the parish ways, and took counsel on the means of usefulness that would not clash with the curate and pain her uncle. She even talked of a possible orphan for the F. U. E. E., only that unlucky prejudice against Mr. Mauleverer was sure to stand in the way.
So acceptable had Bessie Keith made herself everywhere, that all Avonmouth was grieved at her engagement to spend the winter at Bath with her married cousin, to whom she was imperatively necessary in the getting up of a musical party.
"And I must go some time or other," she said to Colonel Keith, "so it had better be when you are all here to make Myrtlewood cheerful, and I can be of most use to poor Jane! I do think dear Lady Temple is much more full of life and brightness now!"
Everybody seemed to consider Bessie's departure as their own personal loss: the boys were in despair for their playfellow, Ermine would miss those sunny visits; Colonel Keith many a pleasant discussion, replete with delicate compliments to Ermine, veiled by tact; and Lord Keith the pretty young clanswoman who had kept up a graceful little coquetry with him, and even to the last evening, went on walking on the esplanade with him in the sunset, so as to set his brother free to avoid the evening chill.
And, above all, Lady Temple regretted the loss of the cheery companion of her evenings. True, Bessie had lately had a good many small evening gaieties, but she always came back from them so fresh and bright, and so full of entertaining description and anecdote, that Fanny felt as if she had been there herself, and, said Bessie, "it was much better for her than staying at home with her, and bringing in no novelty."
"Pray come to me again, dearest! Your stay has been the greatest treat. It is very kind in you to be so good to me."
"It is you who are good to me, dearest Lady Temple."
"I am afraid I shall hardly get you again. Your poor uncle will never be able to part with you, so I won't ask you to promise, but if ever you can—"
"If ever I can! This has been a very happy time, dear Lady Temple," a confidence seemed trembling on her lips, but she suppressed it. "I shall always think of you as the kindest friend a motherless girl ever had! I will write to you from Bath. Good-bye—"
And there were all the boys in a row, little affectionate Hubert absolutely tearful, and Conrade holding up a bouquet, on which he had spent all his money, having persuaded Coombe to ride with him to the nursery garden at Avoncester to procure it. He looked absolutely shy and blushing, when Bessie kissed him and promised to dry the leaves and keep them for ever.
CHAPTER XV. GO AND BRAY
"Come, come, elder brother, you are too young in this!"— As You Like It
"Alick, I have something to say to you."
Captain Keith did not choose to let his sister travel alone, when he could help it, and therefore was going to Bath with her, intending to return to Avoncester by the next down train. He made no secret that he thought it a great deal of trouble, and had been for some time asleep, when, at about two stations from Bath, Bessie having shut the little door in the middle of the carriage, thus addressed him, "Alick, I have something to say to you, and I suppose I may as well say it now."
She pressed upon his knee, and with an affected laziness, he drew his eyes wide open.
"Ah, well, I've been a sore plague to you, but I shall be off your hands now."
"Eh! whose head have you been turning?"
"Alick, what do you think of Lord Keith?"
Alick was awake enough now! "The old ass!" he exclaimed. "But at least you are out of his way now."
"Not at all. He is coming to Bath to-morrow to see my aunt."
"And you want me to go out to-morrow and stop him?"
"No, Alick, not exactly. I have been cast about the world too long not to be thankful."
"Do not look so very much surprised," she said, in her sweet pleading way. "May I not be supposed able to feel that noble kindness and gracious manner, and be glad to have some one to look up to?"
"And how about Charlie Carleton?" demanded Alick, turning round full on her.
"For shame, Alick!" she exclaimed hotly; "you who were the one to persecute me about him, and tell me all sorts of things about his being shallow and unprincipled, and not to be thought of, you to bring him up against me now."
"I might think all you allege," returned Alick, gravely, "and yet be much amazed at the new project."
Bessie laughed. "In fact you made a little romance, in which you acted the part of sapient brother, and the poor little sister broke her heart ever after! You wanted such an entertainment when you were lying on the sofa, so you created a heroine and a villain, and thundered down to the rescue."
"Very pretty, Bessie, but it will not do. It was long after I was well again, and had joined."
"Then it was the well-considered effect of the musings of your convalescence! When you have a sister to take care of, it is as well to feel that you are doing it."
"Now, Elizabeth," said her brother, with seriousness not to be laughed aside, and laying his hand on hers, "before I hear another word on this matter, look me in the face and tell me deliberately that you never cared for Carleton."
"I never thought for one moment of marrying him," said Bessie, haughtily. "If I ever had any sort of mercy on him, it was all to tease you. There, are you satisfied?"
"I must be, I suppose," he replied, and he sighed heavily. "When was this settled?"
"Yesterday, walking up and down the esplanade. He will tell his brother to-day, and I shall write to Lady Temple. Oh, Alick, he is so kind, he spoke so highly of you."
"I must say," returned Alick, in the same grave tone, "that if you wished for the care of an old man, I should have thought my uncle the more agreeable of the two."
"He is little past fifty. You are very hard on him."
"On the contrary, I am sorry for him. You will always find it good for him to do whatever suits yourself."
"Alick?" said his sister mournfully, "you have never forgotten or forgiven my girlish bits of neglect after your wound."
"No, Bessie," he said, holding her hand kindly, "it is not the neglect or the girlishness, but the excuses to me, still more to my uncle, and most of all to yourself. They are what make me afraid for you in what you are going to take upon yourself."
She did not answer immediately, and he pursued—"Are you driven to this by dislike to living at Bishopsworthy? If so, do not be afraid to tell me. I will make any arrangement, if you would prefer living with Jane. We agreed once that it would be too expensive, but now I could let you have another hundred a year."
"As if I would allow that, Alick! No, indeed! Lord Keith means you to have all my share."
"Does he? There are more words than one to that question. And pray is he going to provide properly for his poor daughter in the West Indies?"
"I hope to induce him to take her into favour."
"Eh? and to make him give up to Colin Keith that Auchinvar estate that he ought to have had when Archie Keith died?"
"You may be sure I shall do my best for the Colonel. Indeed, I do think Lord Keith will consent to the marriage now."
"You have sacrificed yourself on that account?" he said, with irony in his tone, that he could have repented the next moment, so good-humoured was her reply, "That is understood, so give me the merit."
"The merit of, for his sake, becoming a grandmother. You have thought of the daughters? Mrs. Comyn Menteith must be older than yourself."
"Three years," said Bessie, in his own tone of acceptance of startling facts, "and I shall have seven grandchildren in all, so you see you must respect me."
"Do you know her sentiments?"
"I know what they will be when we have met. Never fear, Alick. If she were not married it might be serious, being so, I have no fears."
Then came a silence, till a halt at the last station before Bath roused Alick again.
"Bessie," he said, in the low voice the stoppage permitted, "don't think me unkind. I believe you have waited on purpose to leave me no time for expostulation, and what I have said has sounded the more harsh in consequence."
"No, Alick," she said, "you are a kind brother in all but the constructions you put upon my doings. I think it would be better if there were more difference between our ages. You are a young guardian, over anxious, and often morbidly fanciful about me during your illness. I think we shall be happier together when you no longer feel yourself responsible."
"The tables turned," muttered Alick.
"I am prepared for misconstruction," added Bessie. "I know it will be supposed to be the title; the estate it cannot be, for you know how poor a property it is; but I do not mean to care for the world. Your opinion is a different thing, and I thought you would have seen that I could not be insensible to such dignified kindness, and the warmth of a nature that many people think cold."
"I don't like set speeches, Bessie."
"Then believe me, Alick. May I not love the fine old man that has been so kind to me?"
"I hope you do," said Alick, slowly.
"And you can't believe it? Not with Lady Temple before you and hers was really an old man."
"Do not talk of her or Sir Stephen either. No, Bessie," he added more calmly after a time, "I may be doing great injustice to you both, but I must speak what it is my duty to say. Lord Keith is a hard, self-seeking man, who has been harsh and grasping towards his family, and I verily believe came here bent on marriage, only because his brother was no longer under his tyranny. He may not be harsh to you, because he is past his vigour, and if he really loves you, you have a power of governing; but from what I know of you, I cannot believe in your loving him enough to make such management much better than selfish manoeuvring. Therefore I cannot think this marriage for your real welfare, or be other than bitterly grieved at it. Do not answer, Bessie, but think this over, and if at any time this evening you feel the least doubt of your happiness in this matter, telegraph to me, and I will stop him."
"Indeed, Alick," she answered, without anger, "I believe you are very anxious for my good."
It will readily be believed that Captain Keith received no telegram.
Nevertheless, as soon as his time was his own the next morning, he rode to Avonmouth and sought out the Colonel, not perhaps with very defined hopes of making any change in his sister's intentions, but feeling that some attempt on his own part must be made, if only to free himself from acquiescence, and thinking that Colin, as late guardian to the one party, and brother to the other, was the most proper medium.
Colonel Keith was taken by surprise at the manner in which his cordial greeting was met. He himself had been far from displeased at his brother's communication; it was a great relief to him personally, as well as on Lady Temple's account, and he had been much charmed at Bessie's good sense and engaging graces. As to disparity of years, Lord Keith had really made himself much younger of late, and there was much to excite a girl's romance in the courtesy of an elderly man, the chief of her clan; moreover, the perfect affection and happiness Colin had been used to witness in his general's family disposed him to make light of that objection; and he perceived that his brother was sufficiently bewitched to be likely to be kind and indulgent to his bride.
He had not expected Alexander Keith to be as well pleased as he was himself, but he was not prepared for his strong disapprobation, and earnest desire to find some means of prevention, and he began to reassure him upon the placability of Mrs. Comyn Menteith, the daughter, as well as upon his brother's kindness to the objects of his real affection.
"Oh, I am not afraid of that. She will manage him fast enough."
"Very likely, and for his good. Nor need you question his being a safe guide for her in higher matters. Perhaps you are prejudiced against him because his relations with me have not been happy, but candidly, in them you know the worst of him; and no doubt he thought himself purely acting for my welfare. I know much more of him now that I have been at home with him, and I was greatly struck with his real consideration for the good of all concerned with him."
"No, I am not thinking of Lord Keith. To speak it out, I cannot believe that my sister has heart enough in this to justify her."
"Young girls often are more attracted by elderly men than by lads."
"You do not know Bessie as, I am sorry to say, I do," said Alick, speaking slowly and sadly, and with a flush of shame on his cheek. "I do not say that she says anything untrue, but the truth is not in her. She is one of those selfish people who are infinitely better liked than those five hundred times their worth, because they take care to be always pleased."
"They give as much pleasure as they take."
"Yes, they take every one in. I wish to my heart I could be taken in too, but I have seen too much of her avoidance of every service to my uncle that she did not like. I verily believe, at this moment, that one great inducement with her is to elude the care of him."
"Stern judgments, Alick. I know you would not speak thus without warrant; but take it into account that marriage makes many a girl's selfishness dual, and at last drowns the self."
"Yes, when it is a marriage of affection. But the truth must be told, Colonel. There was a trumpery idle fellow always loitering at Littleworthy, and playing croquet. I set my face against it with all my might, and she always laughed to scorn the notion that there was anything in it, nor do I believe that she has heart enough to wish to marry him. I could almost say I wish she had, but I never saw her show the same pleasure in any one's attentions, and I believe he is gone out to Rio in hopes of earning means to justify his addresses."
Colonel Keith sat gravely considering what he knew would not be spoken lightly. "Do you mean that there was attachment enough to make it desirable that you should tell my brother?"
"No, I could say nothing that she could not instantly contradict with perfect truth, though not with perfect sincerity."
"Let me ask you one question, Alick—not a flattering one. May not some of these private impressions of yours have been coloured by your long illness!"
"That is what Bessie gives every one to understand," said Alick, calmly. "She is right, to a certain degree, that suffering sharpened my perceptions, and helplessness gave me time to draw conclusions. If I had been well, I might have been as much enchanted as other people; and if my uncle had not needed her care, and been neglected, I could have thought that I was rendered exacting by illness. But I imagine all I have said is not of the slightest use, only, if you think it right to tell your brother to talk to me, I would rather stand all the vituperation that would fall on me than allow this to take place."
Colonel Keith walked up and down the room considering, whilst Alick sat in a dejected attitude, shading his face, and not uttering how very bitter it had been to him to make the accusation, nor how dear the sister really was.
"I see no purpose that would be answered," said Colonel Keith, coming to a pause at last; "you have nothing tangible to mention, even as to the former affair that you suspect. I see a great deal in your view of her to make you uneasy, but nothing that would not be capable of explanation, above all to such a man as my brother. It would appear like mere malevolence."
"Never mind what it would appear," said Alick, who was evidently in such a ferment as his usually passive demeanour would have seemed incapable of.
"If the appearance would entirely baffle the purpose, it must be considered," said the Colonel; "and in this case it could only lead to estrangement, which would be a lasting evil. I conclude that you have remonstrated with your sister."
"As much as she gave me time for; but of course that is breath spent in vain."
"Your uncle had the same means of judging as yourself."
"No, Colonel, he could do nothing! In the first place, there can be no correspondence with him; and next, he is so devotedly fond of Bessie, that he would no more believe anything against her than Lady Temple would. I have tried that more than once."
"Then, Alick, there is nothing for it but to let it take its course; and even upon your own view, your sister will be much safer married than single."
"I had very little expectation of your saying anything else, but in common honesty I felt bound to let you know."
"And now the best thing to be done is to forget all you have said."
"Which you will do the more easily as you think it an amiable delusion of mine. Well, so much the better. I dare say you will never think otherwise, and I would willingly believe that my senses went after my fingers' ends."
The Colonel almost believed so himself. He was aware of the miserably sensitive condition of shattered nerve in which Alick had been sent home, and of the depression of spirits that had ensued on the news of his father's death; and he thought it extremely probable that his weary hours and solicitude for his gay young sister might have made molehills into mountains, and that these now weighed on his memory and conscience. At least, this seemed the only way of accounting for an impression so contrary to that which Bessie Keith made on every one else, and, by his own avowal, on the uncle whom he so much revered. Every other voice proclaimed her winning, amiable, obliging, considerate, and devoted to the service of her friends, with much drollery and shrewdness of perception, tempered by kindness of heart and unwillingness to give pain; and on that sore point of residence with the blind uncle, it was quite possibly a bit of Alick's exaggerated feeling to imagine the arrangement so desirable—the young lady might be the better judge.
On the whole, the expostulation left Colonel Keith more uncomfortable on Alick's account than on that of his brother.
CHAPTER XVI. AN APPARITION.
"And there will be auld Geordie Tanner, Who coft a young wife wi' his gowd." JOANNA BAILLIE.
"Mamma," quoth Leoline, "I thought a woman must not marry her grandfather. And she called him the patriarch of her clan."
"He is a cross old man," added Hubert. "He said children ought not to be allowed on the esplanade, because he got into the way as I was pushing the perambulator."
"This was the reason," said Francis, gravely, "that she stopped me from braying at him. I shall know what people are at, when they talk of disrespect another time."
"Don't talk of her," cried Conrade, flinging himself round; "women have no truth in them."
"Except the dear, darling, delightful mammy!" And the larger proportion of boys precipitated themselves headlong upon her, so that any one but a mother would have been buffeted out of breath in their struggles for embracing ground; and even Lady Temple found it a relief when Hubert, having been squeezed out, bethought himself of extending the honourable exception to Miss Williams, and thus effected a diversion. What would have been the young gentlemen's reception of his lordship's previous proposal!
Yet in the fulness of her gladness the inconsistent widow, who had thought Lord Keith so much too old for herself, gave her younger friend heartfelt congratulations upon the blessing of being under fatherly direction and guidance. She was entrusted with the announcement to Rachel, who received it with a simple "Indeed!" and left her cousin unmolested in her satisfaction, having long relegated Fanny to the class of women who think having a friend about to be married the next best thing to being married themselves, no matter to whom.
"Aspirations in women are mere delusions," was her compensating sigh to Grace. "There is no truer saying, than that a woman will receive every man."
"I have always been glad that is aprocryphal," said Grace, "and Eastern women have no choice."
"Nor are Western women better than Eastern," said Rachel. "It is all circumstances. No mental power or acuteness has in any instance that I have yet seen, been able to balance the propensity to bondage. The utmost flight is, that the attachment should not be unworthy."
"I own that I am very much surprised," said Grace.
"I am not at all," said Rachel. "I have given up hoping better things. I was beginning to have a high opinion of Bessie Keith's capabilities, but womanhood was at the root all the time; and, as her brother says, she has had great disadvantages, and I can make excuses for her. She had not her heart filled with one definite scheme of work and usefulness, such as deters the trifling and designing."
"Like the F. U. E. E.?"
"Yes, the more I see of the fate of other women, the more thankful I am that my vocation has taken a formed and developed shape."
And thus Rachel could afford to speak without severity of the match, though she abstained from congratulation. She did not see Captain Keith for the next few days, but at last the two sisters met him at the Cathedral door as they were getting into the carriage after a day's shopping at Avoncester; and Grace offered her congratulations, in accordance with her mother's old fashioned code.
"Thank you," he said; then turning to Rachel, "Did she write to you?"
"I thought not."
There was something marked in his tone, but his sister's silence was not of long duration, for a letter arrived containing orders for lace, entreating that a high pressure might be put on Mrs. Kelland, and containing beauteous devices for the veil, which was to be completed in a fearfully short time, since the wedding was to be immediate, in order that Lord Keith might spend Christmas and the ensuing cold months abroad. It was to take place at Bath, and was to be as quiet as possible; "or else," wrote Miss Keith, "I should have been enchanted to have overcome your reluctance to witness the base surrender of female rights. I am afraid you are only too glad to be let off, only don't thank me, but circumstances."
Rachel's principles revolted at the quantity of work demanded of the victims to lace, and Grace could hardly obtain leave to consult Mrs. Kelland. But she snapped at the order, for the honour and glory of the thing, and undertook through the ramifications of her connexion to obtain the whole bridal array complete. "For such a pleasant-spoken lady as Miss Keith, she would sit up all night rather than disappoint her."
The most implacable person of all was the old housekeeper, Tibbie. She had been warmly attached to Lady Keith, and resented her having a successor, and one younger than her daughters; and above all, ever since the son and heir had died, she had reckoned on her own Master Colin coming to the honours of the family, and regarded this new marriage as a crossing of Providence. She vainly endeavoured to stir up Master Colin to remonstrate on his brother's "makin' siccan a fule's bargain wi' yon glaikit lass. My certie, but he'll hae the warst o't, honest man; rinnin' after her, wi' a' her whigmaleries an' cantrips. He'll rue the day that e'er he bowed his noble head to the likes o' her, I'm jalousin."
It was to no purpose to remind her that the bride was a Keith in blood; her great grandfather a son of the house of Gowanbrae; all the subsequent descendants brave soldiers.
"A Keith ca' ye her! It's a queer kin' o' Keiths she's comed o', nae better nor Englishers that haena sae muckle's set fit in our bonny Scotland; an' sic scriechin', skirlin' tongues as they hae, a body wad need to be gleg i' the uptak to understan' a word they say. Tak' my word for't, Maister Colin, it's no a'thegither luve for his lordship's grey hairs that gars yon gilpy lassock seek to become my Leddy Keith."
"Nay, Tibbie, if you find fault with such a sweet, winning young creature, I shall think it is all because you will not endure a mistress at Gowanbrae over you."
"His lordship'll please himsel' wi' a leddy to be mistress o' Gowanbrae, but auld Tibbie'll never cross the doorstane mair."
"Indeed you will, Tibbie; here are my brother's orders that you should go down, as soon as you can conveniently make ready, and see about the new plenishing."
"They may see to the plenishing that's to guide it after han, an' that'll no be me. My lord'll behove to tak' his orders aff his young leddy ance he's married on her, may be a whilie afore, but that's no to bind ither folk, an' it's no to be thought that at my years I'm to be puttin' up wi' a' ther new fangled English fykes an' nonsense maggots. Na, na, Maister Colin, his lordship'll fend weel aneugh wantin' Tibbie; an' what for suld I leave yerself, an' you settin' up wi' a house o' yer ain? Deed an' my mind's made up, I'll e'en bide wi' ye, an' nae mair about it."
"Stay, stay," cried Colin, a glow coming into his cheeks, "don't reckon without your host, Tibbie. Do you think Gowanbrae the second is never to have any mistress but yourself?"
"Haud awa' wi' ye, laddie, I ken fine what ye'ra ettlin' at, but yon's a braw leddy, no like thae English folk, but a woman o' understandin', an' mair by token I'm thinkin' she'll be gleg aneugh to ken a body that'll serve her weel, an' see to the guidin' o' thae feckless queens o' servant lasses, for bad's the best o' them ye'll fin' hereawa'. Nae fear but her an' me'll put it up weel thegither, an' a' gude be wi' ye baith."
After this Colin resigned himself and his household to Tibbie's somewhat despotic government, at least for the present. To Ermine's suggestion that her appellation hardly suited the dignity of her station, he replied that Isabel was too romantic for southern ears, and that her surname being the same as his own, he was hardly prepared to have the title of Mrs. Keith pre-occupied. So after Mrs. Curtis's example, the world for the most part knew the colonel's housekeeper as Mrs. Tibbs.
She might be a tyrant, but liberties were taken with her territory; for almost the first use that the colonel made of his house was to ask a rheumatic sergeant, who had lately been invalided, to come and benefit by the Avonmouth climate. Scottish hospitality softened Tibbie's heart, and when she learnt that Sergeant O'Brien had helped to carry Master Colin into camp after his wound, she thought nothing too good for him. The Colonel then ventured to add to the party an exemplary consumptive tailor from Mr. Mitchell's parish, who might yet be saved by good living and good air. Some growls were elicited, but he proved to be so deplorably the ninetieth rather than the ninth part of a man, that Tibbie made it her point of honour to fatten him; and the sergeant found him such an intelligent auditor of the Indian exploits of the —th Highlanders that mutual respect was fully established, and high politeness reigned supreme, even though the tailor could never be induced to delight in the porridge, on which the sergeant daily complimented the housekeeper in original and magnificent metaphors.
Nor had the Colonel any anxieties in leaving the representatives of the three nations together while he went to attend his brother's wedding. He proposed that Tibbie should conduct Rose for the daily walk of which he had made a great point, thinking that the child did not get exercise enough, since she was so averse to going alone upon the esplanade that her aunt forbore to press it. She manifested the same reluctance to going out with Tibbie, and this the Colonel ascribed to her fancying herself too old to be under the charge of a nurse. It was trying to laugh her out of her dignity, but without eliciting an answer, when, one afternoon just as they were entering together upon the esplanade, he felt her hand tighten upon his own with a nervous frightened clutch, as she pressed tremulously to his side.
"What is it, my dear? That dog is not barking at you. He only wants to have a stick thrown into the sea for him."
"Oh not the dog! It was—"
"HIM!" gasped Rose.
"Who?" inquired the Colonel, far from prepared for the reply, in a terrified whisper,—
"My dear child! Which, where?"
"He is gone! he is past. Oh, don't turn back! Don't let me see him again."
"You don't suppose he could hurt you, my dear."
"No," hesitated Rose, "not with you."
"Nor with any one."
"I suppose not," said Rose, common sense reviving, though her grasp was not relaxed.
"Would it distress you very much to try to point him out to me?" said the Colonel, in his irresistibly sweet tone.
"I will. Only keep hold of my hand, pray," and the little hand trembled so much that he felt himself committing a cruel action in leading her along the esplanade, but there was no fresh start of recognition, and when they had gone the whole length, she breathed more freely, and said, "No, he was not there."
Recollecting how young she had been at the time of Maddox's treason, the Colonel began to doubt if her imagination had not raised a bugbear, and he questioned her, "My dear, why are you so much afraid, of this person? What do you know about him?"
"He told wicked stories of my papa," said Rose, very low.
"True, but he could not hurt you. You don't think he goes about like Red Ridinghood's wolf?"
"No, I am not so silly now."
"Are you sure you know him? Did you often see him in your papa's house?"
"No, he was always in the laboratory, and I might not go there."
"Then you see, Rose, it must be mere fancy that you saw him, for you could not even know him by sight."
"It was not fancy," said Rose, gentle and timid as ever, but still obviously injured at the tone of reproof.
"My dear child," said Colonel Keith, with some exertion of patience, "you must try to be reasonable. How can you possibly recognise a man that you tell me you never saw?"
"I said I never saw him in the house," said Rose with a shudder; "but they said if ever I told they would give me to the lions in the Zoological Gardens."
"Who said so?"
"He, Mr. Maddox and Maria," she answered, in such trepidation that he could scarcely hear her.
"But you are old and wise enough now to know what a foolish and wicked threat that was, my dear."
"Yes, I was a little girl then, and knew no better, and once I did tell a lie when mamma asked me, and now she is dead, and I can never tell her the truth."
Colin dreaded a public outbreak of the sobs that heaved in the poor child's throat, but she had self-control enough to restrain them till he had led her into his own library, where he let her weep out her repentance for the untruth, which, wrested from her by terror, had weighed so long on her conscience. He felt that he was sparing Ermine something by receiving the first tempest of tears, in the absolute terror and anguish of revealing the secret that had preyed on her with mysterious horror.
"Now tell me all about it, my dear little girl. Who was this Maria?"
"Maria was my nurse when I lived at home. She used to take me out walking," said Rose, pressing closer to his protecting breast, and pausing as though still afraid of her own words.
"Well," he said, beginning to perceive, "and was it than that you saw this Maddox?"
"Yes, he used to come and walk with us, and sit under the trees in Kensington Gardens with her. And sometimes he gave me lemon-drops, but they said if ever I told, the lions should have me. I used to think I might be saved like Daniel; but after I told the lie, I knew I should not. Mamma asked me why my fingers were sticky, and I did say it was from a lemon-drop, but there were Maria's eyes looking at me; oh, so dreadful, and when mamma asked who gave it to me, and Maria said, 'I did, did not I, Miss Rose?' Oh, I did not seem able to help saying 'yes.'"
"Poor child! And you never dared to speak of it again?"
"Oh, no! I did long to tell; but, oh, one night it was written up in letters of fire, 'Beware of the Lions.'"
"Terror must have set you dreaming, my dear."
"No," said Rose, earnestly. "I was quite awake. Papa and mamma were gone out to dine and sleep, and Maria would put me to bed half an hour too soon. She read me to sleep, but by-and-by I woke up, as I always did at mamma's bed time, and the candle was gone, and there were those dreadful letters in light over the door."
She spoke with such conviction that he became persuaded that all was not delusion, and asked what she did.
"I jumped up, and screamed, and opened the door; but there they were growling in papa's dressing-room."
"They, the lions? Oh, Rose, you must know that was impossible."
"No, I did not see any lions, but I heard the growl, and Mr. Maddox coughed, and said, 'Here they come,' and growled again."
"I tumbled into bed again, and rolled up my head in the clothes, and prayed that it might be day, and it was at last!"
"Poor child! Indeed, Rose, I do not wonder at your terror, I never heard of a more barbarous trick."
"Was it a trick?" said Rose, raising a wonderfully relieved and hopeful face.
"Did you never hear of writing in phosphorus, a substance that shines at night as the sea sometimes does?"
"Aunt Ailie has a book with a story about writing in fiery letters, but it frightened me so much that I never read to the end."
"Bring it to me, and we will read it together, and then you will see that such a cruel use can be made of phosphorus."
"It was unkind of them," said Rose, sadly, "I wonder if they did it for fun?"
"Where did you sleep?"
"I had a little room that opened into mamma's."
"And where was all this growling?"
"In papa's room. The door was just opposite to mine, and was open. All the light was there, you know. Mamma's room was dark, but there was a candle in the dressing-room."
"Did you see anything?"
"Only the light. It was such a moment. I don't think I saw Mr. Maddox, but I am quite certain I heard him, for he had an odd little cough."
"Then, Rose, I have little doubt that all this cruelty to you, poor inoffensive little being, was to hide some plots against your father."
She caught his meaning with the quickness of a mind precocious on some points though childish on others. "Then if I had been brave and told the truth, he might never have hurt papa."
"Mind, I do not know, and I never thought of blaming you, the chief sufferer! No, don't begin to cry again."
"Ah! but I did tell a lie. And I never can confess it to mamma," she said, recurring to the sad lament so long suppressed.
She found a kind comforter, who led her to the higher sources of consolation, feeling all the time the deep self-accusation with which the sight of sweet childish penitence must always inspire a grown person.
"And now you will not fear to tell your aunt," he added, "only it should be when you can mention it without such sad crying."
"Telling you is almost as good as telling her," said Rose, "and I feel safe with you," she added, caressingly drawing his arm round her. "Please tell Aunt Ermine, for my crying does give her such a headache."
"I will, then, and I think when we all know it, the terrors will leave you."
"Not when I see Mr. Maddox. Oh, please now you know why, don't make me walk without you. I do know now that he could not do anything to me, but I can't help feeling the fright. And, oh! if he was to speak to me!"
"You have not seen him here before?"
"Yes I have, at least I think so. Once when Aunt Ermine sent me to the post-office, and another time on the esplanade. That is why I can't bear going out without you or Aunt Ailie. Indeed, it is not disliking Tibbie."
"I see it is not, my dear, and we will say no more about it till you have conquered your alarm; but remember, that he is not likely to know you again. You must be more changed in these three years than he is."
This consideration seemed to reassure Rose greatly, and her next inquiry was, "Please, are my eyes very red for going home?"
"Somewhat mottled—something of the York and Lancaster rose. Shall I leave you under Tibbie's care till the maiden blush complexion returns, and come back and fetch you when you have had a grand exhibition of my Indian curiosities?"
"Have you Indian curiosities! I thought they were only for ladies?"
"Perhaps they are. Is Tibbie guard enough? You know there's an Irish sergeant in the house taller than I am, if you want a garrison?"
"Oh, I am not afraid, only these eyes."
"I will tell her you have been frightened, and she shall take no notice."
Tibbie was an admirer of Rose and gladly made her welcome, while the Colonel repaired to Ermine, and greatly startled her by the disclosure of the miseries that had been inflicted on the sensitive child.
It had indeed been known that there had been tyranny in the nursery, and to this cause the aunts imputed the startled wistful expression in Rose's eyes; but they had never questioned her, thinking that silence would best wear out the recollection. The only wonder was that her senses had not been permanently injured by that night of terror, which accounted for her unconquerable dread of sleeping in the dark; and a still more inexplicable horror of the Zoological Gardens, together with many a nervous misery that Ermine had found it vain to combat. The Colonel asked if the nurse's cruelty had been the cause of her dismissal?
"No, it was not discovered till after her departure. Her fate has always been a great grief to us, though we little thought her capable of using Rose in this way. She was one of the Hathertons. You must remember the name, and the pretty picturesque hovel on the Heath."
"The squatters that were such a grievance to my uncle. Always suspected of poaching, and never caught."
"Exactly. Most of the girls turned out ill, but this one, the youngest, was remarkably intelligent and attractive at school. I remember making an excuse for calling her into the garden for you to see and confess that English beauty exceeded Scottish, and you called her a gipsy and said we had no right to her."
"So it was those big black eyes that had that fiendish malice in them!"
"Ah! if she fell into Maddox's hands, I wonder the less. She showed an amount of feeling about my illness that won Ailie's heart, and we had her for a little handmaid to help my nurse. Then, when we broke up from home, we still kept her, and every one used to be struck with her looks and manner. She went on as well as possible, and Lucy set her heart on having her in the nursery. And when the upper nurse went away, she had the whole care of Rose. We heard only of her praises till, to our horror, we found she had been sent away in disgrace at a moment's warning. Poor Lucy was young, and so much shocked as only to think of getting her out of the house, not of what was to become of her, and all we could learn was that she never went home."
"How long was this before the crash?"
"It was only a few weeks before the going abroad, but they had been absent nearly a year. No doubt Maddox must have made her aid in his schemes. You say Rose saw him?"
"So she declares, and there is an accuracy of memory about her that I should trust to. Should you or Alison know him?"
"No, we used to think it a bad sign that Edward never showed him to us. I remember Alison being disappointed that he was not at the factory the only time she saw it."
"I do not like going away while he may be lurking about. I could send a note to-night, explaining my absence."
"No, no," exclaimed Ermine, "that would be making me as bad as poor little Rose. If he be here ever so much he has done his worst, and Edward is out of his reach. What could he do to us? The affairs were wound up long ago, and we have literally nothing to be bullied out of. No, I don't think he could make me believe in lions in any shape."
"You strong-minded woman! You want to emulate the Rachel."
"You have brought her," laughed Ermine at the sound of the well-known knock, and Rachel entered bag in hand.
"I was in hopes of meeting you," she said to the Colonel. "I wanted to ask you to take charge of some of these;" and she produced a packet of prospectuses of a "Journal of Female Industry," an illustrated monthly magazine, destined to contain essays, correspondence, reviews, history, tales, etc., to be printed and illustrated in the F. U. E. E.
"I hoped," said Rachel, "to have begun with the year, but we are not forward enough, and indeed some of the expenses require a subscription in advance. A subscriber in advance will have the year's numbers for ten shillings, instead of twelve; and I should be much obliged if you would distribute a few of these at Bath, and ask Bessie to do the same. I shall set her name down at the head of the list, as soon as she has qualified it for a decoy."
"Are these printed at the F. U. E. E.?"
"No, we have not funds as yet. Mr. Mauleverer had them done at Bristol, where he has a large connexion as a lecturer, and expects to get many subscribers. I brought these down as soon as he had left them with me, in hopes that you would kindly distribute them at the wedding. And I wished," added she to Ermine, "to ask you to contribute to our first number."
"Thank you," and the doubtful tone induced Rachel to encourage her diffidence.
"I know you write a great deal, and I am sure you must produce something worthy to see the light. I have no scruple in making the request, as I know Colonel Keith agrees with me that womanhood need not be an extinguisher for talent."
"I am not afraid of him," Ermine managed to say without more smile than Rachel took for gratification.
"Then if you would only entrust me with some of your fugitive reflections, I have no doubt that something might be made of them. A practised hand," she added with a certain editorial dignity, "can always polish away any little roughnesses from inexperience."
Ermine was choking with laughter at the savage pulls that Colin was inflicting on his moustache, and feeling silence no longer honest, she answered in an odd under tone, "I can't plead inexperience."
"No!" cried Rachel. "You have written; you have not published!"
"I was forced to do whatever brought grist to the mill," said Ermine. "Indeed," she added, with a look as if to ask pardon; "our secrets have been hardly fair towards you, but we made it a rule not to spoil our breadwinner's trade by confessing my enormities."
"I assure you," said the Colonel, touched by Rachel's appalled look, "I don't know how long this cautious person would have kept me in the dark if she had not betrayed herself in the paper we discussed the first day I met you."
"The 'Traveller,'" said Rachel, her eyes widening like those of a child. "She is the 'Invalid'!"
"There, I am glad to have made a clean breast of it," said Ermine.
"The 'Invalid'!" repeated Rachel. "It is as bad as the Victoria Cross."
"There is a compliment, Ermine, for which you should make your bow," said Colin.
"Oh, I did not mean that," said Rachel; "but that it was as great a mistake as I made about Captain Keith, when I told him his own story, and denied his being the hero, till I actually saw his cross," and she spoke with a genuine simplicity that almost looked like humour, ending with, "I wonder why I am fated to make such mistakes!"
"Preconceived notions," said Ermine, smiling; "your theory suffices you, and you don't see small indications."
"There may be something in that," said Rachel, thoughtfully, "it accounts for Grace always seeing things faster than I did."
"Did Mr.—, your philanthropist, bring you this today?" said the Colonel, taking up the paper again, as if to point a practical moral to her confession of misjudgments.
"Mr. Mauleverer? Yes; I came down as soon as he had left me, only calling first upon Fanny. I am very anxious for contributions. If you would only give me a paper signed by the 'Invalid,' it would be a fortune to the institution."
Ermine made a vague answer that she doubted whether the 'Invalid' was separable from the 'Traveller,' and Rachel presently departed with her prospectus, but without having elicited a promise.
"Intolerable!" exclaimed the Colonel. "She was improving under Bessie's influence, but she has broken out worse than ever. 'Journal of Female Industry!' 'Journal of a Knight of Industry,' might be a better title. You will have nothing to do with it, Ermine?"
"Certainly not as the 'Invalid,' but I owe her something for having let her run into this scrape before you."
"As if you could have hindered her! Come, don't waste time and brains on a companion for Curatocult."
"You make me so idle and frivolous that I shall be expelled from the 'Traveller,' and obliged to take refuge in the 'Female Industry Journal.' Shall you distribute the prospectuses?"
"I shall give one to Bessie! That is if I go at all."
"No, no, there is no valid reason for staying away. Even if we were sure that Rose was right, nothing could well come of it, and your absence would be most invidious."
"I believe I am wanted to keep Master Alick in order, but if you have the least feeling that you would be more at ease with me at home—"
"That is not a fair question," said Ermine, smiling. "You know very well that you ought to go."
"And I shall try to bring back Harry Beauchamp," added the Colonel. "He would be able to identify the fellow."
"I do not know what would be gained by that."
"I should know whom to watch."
Ermine had seen so much of Rose's nervous timidity, and had known so many phantoms raised by it, that she attached little importance to the recognition, and when she went over the matter with her little niece, it was with far more thought of the effect of the terror, and of the long suppressed secret, upon the child's moral and physical nature, than with any curiosity as to the subject of her last alarm. She was surprised to observe that Alison was evidently in a state of much more restlessness and suspense than she was conscious of in herself, during Colin's absence, and attributed this to her sister's fear of Maddox's making some inroad upon her in her long solitary hours, in which case she tried to reassure her by promises to send at once for Mr. Mitchell or for Coombe.
Alison let these assurances be given to her, and felt hypocritical for receiving them in silence. Her grave set features had tutored themselves to conceal for ever one page in the life that Ermine thought was entirely revealed to her. Never had Ermine known that brotherly companionship had once suddenly assumed the unwelcome aspect of an affection against which Alison's heart had been steeled by devotion to the sister whose life she had blighted. Her resolution had been unswerving, but its full cost had been unknown to her, till her adherence to it had slackened the old tie of hereditary friendship towards others of her family; and even when marriage should have obliterated the past, she still traced resentment in the hard judgment of her brother's conduct, and even in the one act of consideration that it galled her to accept.
There had been no meeting since the one decisive interview just before she had left her original home, and there were many more bitter feelings than could be easily assuaged in looking forward to a renewal of intercourse, when all too late, she knew that she should soon be no longer needed by her sister. She tried to feel it all just retribution, she tried to rejoice in Ermine's coming happiness; she tried to believe that the sight of Harry Beauchamp, as a married man, would be the best cure for her; she blamed and struggled with herself: and after all, her distress was wasted, Harry Beauchamp had not chosen to come home with his cousin, who took his unwillingness to miss a hunting-day rather angrily and scornfully. Alison put her private interpretation on the refusal, and held aloof, while Colin owned to Ermine his vexation and surprise at the displeasure that Harry Beauchamp maintained against his old schoolfellow, and his absolute refusal to listen to any arguments as to his innocence.
This seemed to have been Colin's prominent interest in his expedition to Bath; the particulars of the wedding were less easily drawn from him. The bride had indeed been perfection, all was charming wherever she brought her ready grace and sweetness, and she had gratified the Colonel by her affectionate messages to Ermine, and her evident intention to make all straight between Lord Keith and his daughter Mary. But the Clare relations had not made a favourable impression; the favourite blind uncle had not been present, in spite of Bessie's boast, and it was suspected that Alick had not chosen to forward his coming. Alick had devolved the office of giving his sister away upon the Colonel, as her guardian, and had altogether comported himself with more than his usual lazy irony, especially towards the Clare cousinhood, who constantly buzzed round him, and received his rebuffs as delightful jests and compliments, making the Colonel wonder all the more at the perfect good taste and good breeding of his new sister-in-law, who had spent among them all the most critical years of her life.
She had been much amused with the prospectus of the "Journal of Female Industry," but she sent word to Rachel that she advised her not to publish any list of subscribers—the vague was far more impressive than the certain. The first number must be sent to her at Paris, and trust her for spreading its fame!
The Colonel did not add to his message her recommendation that the frontispiece should represent the Spinster's Needles, with the rescue of Don as the type of female heroism. Nor did he tell how carefully he had questioned both her and Rachel as to the date of that interesting adventure.
CHAPTER XVII. THE SIEGE.
"The counterfeit presentment."—Hamlet.
Christmas came, and Rachel agreed with Mr. Mauleverer that it was better not to unsettle the children at the F. U. E. E. by permitting them to come home for holidays, a decision which produced much discontent in their respective families. Alison, going to Mrs. Morris with her pupils, to take her a share of Christmas good cheer, was made the receptacle of a great lamentation over the child's absence; and, moreover, that the mother had not been allowed to see her alone, when taken by Miss Rachel to the F. U. E. E.
"Some one ought to take it up," said Alison, as she came home, in her indignation. "Who knows what may be done to those poor children? Can't Mr. Mitchell do something?"
But Mr. Mitchell was not sufficiently at home to interfere. He was indeed negotiating an exchange with Mr. Touchett, but until this was effected he could hardly meddle in the matter, and he was besides a reserved, prudent man, slow to commit himself, so that his own impression of the asylum could not be extracted from him. Here, however, Colonel Keith put himself forward. He had often been asked by Rachel to visit the F. U. E. E., and he surprised and relieved Alison by announcing his intention of going over to St. Norbert's alone and without notice, so as to satisfy himself as far as might be as to the treatment of the inmates, and the genuineness of Mauleverer's pretensions. He had, however, to wait for weather that would not make the adventure one of danger to him, and he regarded the cold and rain with unusual impatience, until, near the end of January, he was able to undertake his expedition.
After much knocking and ringing the door was opened to him by a rude, slatternly, half-witted looking charwoman, or rather girl, who said "Master was not in," and nearly shut the door in his face. However, he succeeded in sending in his card, backed by the mention of Lady Temple and Miss Curtis; and this brought out Mrs. Rawlins, her white streamers floating stiff behind her, full of curtsies and regrets at having to refuse any friend of Miss Curtis, but Mr. Mauleverer's orders were precise and could not be infringed. He was gone to lecture at Bristol, but if the gentleman would call at any hour he would fix to morrow or next day, Mr. Mauleverer would be proud to wait on him.
When he came at the appointed time, all was in the normal state of the institution. The two little girls in white pinafores sat upon their bench with their books before them, and their matron presiding over them; Mr. Mauleverer stood near, benignantly attentive to the children and obligingly so to the visitor, volunteering information and answering all questions. Colonel Keith tried to talk to the children, but when he asked one of them whether she liked drawing better than lace-making her lips quivered, and Mrs. Rawlins replied for her, that she was never happy except with a pencil in her hand. "Show the gentleman, my dear," and out came a book of studios of cubes, globes, posts, etc., while Mr. Mauleverer talked artistically of drawing from models. Next, he observed on a certain suspicious blackness of little Mary's eye, and asked her what she had done to herself. But the child hung her head, and Mrs. Rawlins answered for her, "Ah! Mary is ashamed to tell: but the gentleman will think nothing of it, my dear. He knows that children will be children, and I cannot bear to check them, the dears."
More briefly Mr. Mauleverer explained that Mary had fallen while playing on the stairs; and with this superficial inspection he must needs content himself, though on making inquiry at the principal shops, he convinced himself that neither Mr. Mauleverer nor the F. U. E. E. were as well known at St. Norbert's as at Avonmouth. He told Rachel of his expedition, and his interest in her work gratified her, though she would have preferred being his cicerone. She assured him that he must have been very much pleased, especially with the matron.
"She is a handsome woman, and reminds me strongly of a face I saw in India."
"There are some classes of beauty and character that have a remarkable sameness of feature," began Rachel.
"Don't push that theory, for your matron's likeness was a very handsome Sepoy havildar whom we took at Lucknow, a capital soldier before the mutiny, and then an ineffable ruffian."
"The mutiny was an infectious frenzy; so that you establish nothing against that cast of countenance."
Never, indeed, was there more occasion for perseverance in Rachel's championship. Hitherto Mrs. Kelland had been nailed to her pillow by the exigencies of Lady Keith's outfit, and she and her minions had toiled unremittingly, without a thought beyond their bobbins, but as soon as the postponed orders were in train, and the cash for the wedding veil and flounces had been transmitted, the good woman treated herself and her daughters to a holiday at St. Norbert's, without intimating her intention to her patronesses; and the consequence was a formal complaint of her ungrateful and violent language to Mrs. Rawlins on being refused admission to the asylum without authority from Mr. Mauleverer or Miss Curtis.
Rachel, much displeased, went down charged with reproof and representation, but failed to produce the desired effect upon the aunt.