"It was not right," Mrs. Kelland reiterated, "that the poor lone orphan should not see her that was as good as a mother, when she had no one else to look to. They that kept her from her didn't do it for no good end."
"But, Mrs. Kelland, rules are rules."
"Don't tell me of no rules, Miss Rachel, as would cut a poor child off from her friends as her mother gave her to on her death-bed. 'Sally,' says she, 'I know you will do a mother's part by that poor little maid;' and so I did till I was over persuaded to let her go to that there place."
"Indeed you have nothing to regret there, Mrs. Kelland; you know, that with the kindest intentions, you could not make the child happy."
"And why was that, ma'am, but because her mother was a poor creature from town, that had never broke her to her work. I never had the trouble with a girl of my own I had with her. 'It's all for your good, Lovedy,' I says to her, and poor child, maybe she wishes herself back again."
"I assure you, I always find the children well and happy, and it is very unfair on the matron to be angry with her for being bound by rules, to which she must submit, or she would transgress the regulations under which we have laid her! It is not her choice to exclude you, but her duty."
"Please, ma'am, was it her duty to be coming out of the house in a 'genta coloured silk dress, and a drab bonnet with a pink feather in it?" said Mrs. Kelland, with a certain, air of simplicity, that provoked Rachel to answer sharply—
"You don't know what you are talking about, Mrs. Kelland."
"Well, ma'am, it was a very decent woman as told me, an old lady of the name of Drinkwater, as keeps a baker's shop on the other side of the way, and she never sees bread enough go in for a cat to make use of, let alone three poor hungry children. She says all is not right there, ma'am."
"Oh, that must be mere gossip and spite at not having the custom. It quite accounts for what she may say, and indeed you brought it all on yourself by not having asked me for a note. You must restrain yourself. What you may say to me is of no importance, but you must not go and attack those who are doing the very best for your niece."
Rachel made a dignified exit, but before she had gone many steps, she was assailed by tearful Mrs. Morris: "Oh, Miss Rachel, if it would not be displeasing to you, would you give me an order for my child to come home. Ours is a poor place, but I would rather make any shift for us to live than that she should be sent away to some place beyond sea."
"Some place beyond sea!"
"Yes, ma'am. I beg your pardon, ma'am, but they do say that Mr. Maw-and-liver is a kidnapper, ma'am, and that he gets them poor children to send out to Botany Bay to be wives to the convicts as are transported, Miss Rachel, if you'll excuse it. They say there's a whole shipload of them at Plymouth, and I'd rather my poor Mary came to the Union at home than to the like of that, Miss Rachel."
This alarm, being less reasonable, was even more difficult to talk down than Mrs. Kelland's, and Rachel felt as if there wore a general conspiracy to drive her distracted, when on going home she found the drawing-room occupied by a pair of plump, paddy-looking old friends, who had evidently talked her mother into a state of nervous alarm. On her entrance, Mrs. Curtis begged the gentleman to tell dear Rachel what he had been saying, but this he contrived to avoid, and only on his departure was Rachel made aware that he and his wife had come, fraught with tidings that she was fostering a Jesuit in disguise, that Mrs. Rawlins was a lady abbess of a new order, Rachel herself in danger of being entrapped, and the whole family likely to be entangled in the mysterious meshes, which, as good Mrs. Curtis more than once repeated, would be "such a dreadful thing for poor Fanny and the boys."
Her daughters, by soothing and argument, allayed the alarm, though the impression was not easily done away with, and they feared that it might yet cost her a night's rest. These attacks—absurd as they were—induced Rachel to take measures for their confutation, by writing to Mr. Mauleverer, that she thought it would be well to allow the pupils to pay a short visit to their homes, so as to satisfy their friends.
She did not receive an immediate answer, and was beginning to feel vexed and anxious, though not doubtful, when Mr. Mauleverer arrived, bringing two beautiful little woodcuts, as illustrations for the "Journal of Female Industry." They were entitled "The free maids that weave their thread with bones," and one called "the Ideal," represented a latticed cottage window, with roses, honeysuckles, cat, beehives, and all conventional rural delights, around a pretty maiden singing at her lace-pillow; while the other yclept the "Real," showed a den of thin, wizened, half-starved girls, cramped over their cushions in a lace-school. The design was Mr. Mauleverer's, the execution the children's; and neatly mounted on cards, the performance did them great credit, and there was great justice in Mr. Manleverer's view that while they were making such progress, it would be a great pity to interrupt the preparation of the first number by sending the children home even for a few hours. Rachel consented the more readily to the postponement of the holiday, as she had now something to show in evidence of the reality of their doings, and she laid hands upon the cuts, in spite of Mr. Mauleverer's unwillingness that such mere essays should be displayed as specimens of the art of the F. U. E. E. When the twenty pounds which she advanced should have been laid out in blocks, ink, and paper, there was little doubt that the illustrations of the journal would be a triumphant instance of female energy well directed.
Meantime she repaired to Ermine Williams to persuade her to write an article upon the two pictures, a paper in the lively style in which Rachel herself could not excel, pointing out the selfishness of wilfully sentimental illusions. She found Ermine alone, but her usual fate pursued her in the shape of, first, Lady Temple, then both Colonel and Captain Keith, and little Rose, who all came in before she had had time to do more than explain her intentions. Rose had had another fright, and again the Colonel had been vainly trying to distinguish the bugbear of her fancy, and she was clinging all the more closely to him because he was the only person of her aquaintance who did not treat her alarms as absolutely imaginary.
Rachel held her ground, well pleased to have so many spectators of this triumphant specimen of the skill of her asylum, and Lady Temple gave much admiration, declaring that no one ought to wear lace again without being sure that no one was tortured in making it, and that when she ordered her new black lace shawl of Mrs. Kelland, it should be on condition that the poor girls were not kept so very hard at work.
"You will think me looking for another Sepoy likeness," said the Colonel, "but I am sure I have met this young lady or her twin sister somewhere in my travels."
"It is a satire on conventional pictures," said Rachel.
"Now, I remember," he continued. "It was when I was laid up with my wound at a Dutch boer's till I could get to Cape Town. My sole reading was one number of the 'Illustrated News,' and I made too good acquaintance with that lady's head, to forget her easily."
"Of course," said Rachel, "it is a reminiscence of the painting there represented."
"What was the date?" asked Alick Keith.
The Colonel was able to give it with some precision.
"You are all against me," said Rachel, "I see you are perfectly determined that there shall be something wrong about every performance of the F. U. E. E."
"No, don't say so," began Fanny, with gentle argument, but Alick Keith put in with a smile, "It is a satisfaction to Miss Curtis."
"Athanasius against the world," she answered.
"Athanasius should take care that his own foot is firm, his position incontrovertible," said Ermine.
"Then," said Ermine, "will you allow these little pictures to be examined into?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"Look here," and the Colonel lifted on the table a scrap-book that Rose had been quietly opening on his knee, and which contained an etching of a child playing with a dog, much resembling the style of the drawing.
"Who did that, my dear?" he asked.
"Mamma had it," was Rose's reply; "it was always in my old nursery scrap-hook."
"Every one knows," said Rachel, "that a woodcut is often like an etching, and an etching like a woodcut. I do not know what you are driving at."
"The little dogs and all," muttered Alick, as Rachel glanced rather indignantly at Rose and her book so attentively examined by the Colonel.
"I know," repeated Rachel, "that there is a strong prejudice against Mr. Mauleverer, and that it is entertained by many whom I should have hoped to see above such weakness but when I brought these tangible productions of his system, as evidence of his success, I did not expect to see them received with a covert distrust, which I own I do not understand. I perceive now why good works find so much difficulty in prospering."
"I believe," said Alick Keith, "that I am to have the honour of dining at the Homestead on Monday?"
"Yes. The Greys spend the day with us, and it is Emily's due to have a good sight of you."
"Then will you let me in the meantime take my own measures with regard to these designs. I will not hurt or injure them in any way; they shall be deposited here in Miss William's hands, and I promise you that if I have been able to satisfy myself as to the means of their production, Simon Skinflint shall become a subscriber to the F. U. E. E. Is it a bargain?"
"I never made such a bargain," said Rachel, puzzled.
"Is that a reason for not doing so?"
"I don't know what you mean to do. Not to molest that poor Mrs. Rawlins. I will not have that done."
"Certainly not. All I ask of you is that these works of art should remain here with Miss Williams, as a safe neutral, and that you should meet me here on Monday, when I will undertake to convince myself."
"Not me?" cried Rachel.
"Who would make it part of his terms to convince a lady?"
"You mean to say," exclaimed Rachel, considerably nettled, "that as a woman, I am incapable of being rationally convinced!"
"The proverb does not only apply to women," said Ermine, coming to her rescue; but Rachel, stung by the arch smile and slight bow of Captain Keith, continued—"Let the proof be convincing, and I will meet it as candidly as it is the duty of all reasonable beings to do. Only let me first know what you mean to prove."
"The terms are these then, are they not, Miss Williams? I am to come on Monday, February the 5th, prepared to test whether these designs are what they profess to be, and Miss Curtis undertakes to be convinced by that proof, provided it be one that should carry conviction to a clear, unbiassed mind. I undertake, on the other hand, that if the said proof should be effectual, a mythical personage called Simon Skinflint shall become a supporter of the Female Union for Englishwomen's Employment."
Ho spoke with his own peculiar slowness and gravity, and Rachel, uncertain whether he were making game of her or not, looked perplexed, half on the defence, half gratified. The others were greatly amused, and a great deal surprised at Alick's unwonted willingness to take trouble in the matter. After a few moment's deliberation, Rachel said, "Well, I consent, provided that my candour be met by equal candour on the other side, and you will promise that if this ordeal succeeds, you will lay aside all prejudice against Mauleverer."
A little demur as to the reasonableness of this stipulation followed, but the terms finally were established. Mr. and Mrs. Grey, old family friends, had long been engaged to spend the ensuing Monday at the Homestead. The elder daughter, an old intimate of Grace's, had married an Indian civil servant, whom Colonel Keith was invited to meet at luncheon, and Captain Keith at dinner, and Alick was further to sleep at Gowanbrae. Lady Temple, who was to have been of the party, was called away, much to her own regret, by an appointment with the dentist of St. Norbert's, who was very popular, and proportionately despotic, being only visible at his own times, after long appointment. She would therefore be obliged to miss Alick's ordeal, though as she said, when Rachel—finding it vain to try to outstay so many—had taken her leave, "I should much like to see how it will turn out. I do believe that there is some difference in the colour of the ink in the middle and at the edge, and if those people are deceiving Rachel, who knows what they may be doing to the poor children?"
It was exactly what every one was thinking, but it seemed to have fresh force when it struck the milder and slower imagination, and Lady Temple, seeing that her observation told upon those around her, became more impressed with its weight.
"It really is dreadful to have sent those little girls there without any one knowing what anybody does to them," she repeated.
"It makes even Alick come out in a new character," said the Colonel, turning round on him.
"Why," returned Alick, "my sister had so much to do with letting the young lady in for the scrape, that it is just as well to try to get her out of it. In fact, I think we have all sat with our hands before us in a shamefully cool manner, till we are all accountable for the humbuggery."
"When it comes to your reproaching us with coolness, Captain Keith, the matter becomes serious," returned Colin.
"It does become serious," was the answer; "it is hard that a person without any natural adviser should have been allowed to run headlong, by force of her own best qualities, into the hands of a sharper. I do not see how a man of any proper feeling, can stand by without doing something to prevent the predicament from becoming any worse."
"If you can," said Colonel Keith.
"I verily believe," said Alick, turning round upon him, "that the worse it is for her, the more you enjoy it!"
"Quite true," said Ermine in her mischievous way; "it is a true case of man's detestation of clever women! Look here, Alick, we will not have him here at the great ordeal of the woodcuts. You and I are much more candid and unprejudiced people, and shall manage her much better."
"I have no desire to be present," returned the Colonel; "I have no satisfaction in seeing my friend Alick baffled. I shall see how they both appear at luncheon afterwards."
"How will that be?" asked Fanny, anxiously.
"The lady will be sententious and glorious, and will recommend the F. U. E. E. more than ever, and Alick will cover the downfall of his crest by double-edged assents to all her propositions."
"You will not have that pleasure," said Alick. "I only go to dinner there."
"At any rate," said the Colonel, "supposing your test takes effect by some extraordinary chance, don't take any further steps without letting me know."
The inference was drawn that he expected great results, but he continued to laugh at Alick's expectations of producing any effect on the Clever Woman, and the debate of the woodcuts was adjourned to the Monday.
In good time, Rachel made her appearance in Miss Williams's little sitting-room. "I am ready to submit to any test that Captain Keith may require to confute himself," she said to Ermine; "and I do so the more readily that with all his mocking language, there is a genuine candour and honesty beneath that would be quite worth convincing. I believe that if once persuaded of the injustice of his suspicions he would in the reaction become a fervent supporter of Mr. Mauleverer and of the institution; and though I should prefer carrying on our work entirely through women, yet this interest would be so good a thing for him, that I should by no means reject his assistance."
Rachel had, however, long to wait. As she said, Captain Keith was one of those inborn loiterers who, made punctual by military duty, revenge themselves by double tardiness in the common affairs of life. Impatience had nearly made her revoke her good opinion of him, and augur that, knowing himself vanquished, he had left the field to her, when at last a sound of wheels was heard, a dog-cart stopped at the door, and Captain Keith entered with an enormous blue and gold volume under his arm.
"I am sorry to be so late," he said, "but I have only now succeeded in procuring my ally."
"Yes, in this book. I had to make interest at the Avoncester Library, before I could take it away with me." As he spoke he placed the book desk-fashion on a chair, and turned it so that Ermine might see it; and she perceived that it was a bound-up volume of the "Illustrated London News." Two marks were in it, and he silently parted the leaves at the first.
It revealed the lace-making beauty in all her rural charms.
"I see," said Rachel; "it is the same figure, but not the same shaped picture."
Without another word, Alick Keith opened the pages at the lace-school; and here again the figures were identical, though the margin had been differently finished off.
"I perceive a great resemblance," again said Rachel, "but none that is not fully explained by Mr. Mauleverer's accurate resemblance and desire to satirize foolish sentiment."
Alick Keith took up the woodcut. "I should say," he observed, holding it up to the light, "that it was unusual to mount a proof engraving so elaborately on a card."
"Oh, I see what your distrust is driving at; you suspect the designs of being pasted on."
"There is such a test as water," suggested Alick.
"I should be ashamed to return the proof to its master, bearing traces of unjust suspicion."
"If the suspicion you impute to me be unjust, the water will produce no effect at all."
"And you engage to retract all your distrust and contempt, if you are convinced that this engraving is genuine?"
"I do," he answered steadily.
With irritated magnanimity Rachel dipped her finger into the vase of flowers on the table, and let a heavy drop of water fall upon the cottage scene. The centre remained unaltered, and she looked round in exultation, saying, "There, now I suppose I may wipe it off."
Neither spoke, and she applied her pocket handkerchief. What came peeling away under her pressure? It was the soft paper, and as she was passing the edge of the figure of the girl, she found a large smear following her finger. The peculiar brown of Indian ink was seen upon her handkerchief, and when she took it up a narrow hem of white had become apparent between the girl's head and its surroundings. Neither spectator spoke, they scarcely looked at her, when she took another drop from the vase, and using it more boldly found the pasted figure curling up and rending under her hand, lines of newspaper type becoming apparent, and the dark cloud spreading around.
"What does it mean?" was her first exclamation; then suddenly turning on Ermine, "Well, do you triumph?"
"I am very, very sorry," said Ermine.
"I do not know that it is come to that yet," said Rachel, trying to collect herself. "I may have been pressing too hard for results." Then looking at the mangled picture again as they wisely left her to herself, "But it is a deception! A deception! Oh! he need not have done it! Or," with a lightened look and tone of relief, "suppose he did it to see whether I should find it out?"
"He is hardly on terms with you for that," said Ermine; while Alick could not refrain from saying, "Then he would be a more insolent scoundrel than he has shown himself yet."
"I know he is not quite a gentleman," said Rachel, "and nothing else gives the instinct of the becoming. You have conquered, Captain Keith, if it be any pleasure to you to have given my trust and hope a cruel shock."
"With little satisfaction to myself," he began to say; but she continued, "A shock, a shock I say, no more; I do not know what conclusion I ought to draw. I do not expect you to believe in this person till he has cleared up the deceit. If it be only a joke in bad taste, he deserves the distrust that is the penalty for it. If you have been opening my eyes to a deception, perhaps I shall thank you for it some day. I must think it over."
She rose, gathered her papers together, and took her leave gravely, while Alick, much to Ermine's satisfaction, showed no elation in his victory. All he said was, "There is a great deal of dignity in the strict justice of a mind slow to condemn, or to withdraw the trust once given."
"There is," said Ermine, much pleased with his whole part in the affair; "there has been full and real candour, not flying into the other extreme. I am afraid she has a great deal to suffer."
"It was very wrong to have stood so still when the rascal began his machinations," repeated Alick, "Bessie absolutely helping it on! But for her, the fellow would have had no chance even of acquaintance with her."
"Your sister hardly deserves blame for that."
"Not exactly blame; but the responsibility remains," he replied gravely, and indeed he was altogether much graver than his wont, entirely free from irony, and evidently too sorry for Rachel, and feeling himself, through his sister, too guilty of her entanglement, to have any of that amused satisfaction that even Colin evidently felt in her discomfiture. In fact Ermine did not fully enter into Colin's present tactics; she saw that he was more than usually excited and interested about the F. U. E. E., but he had not explained his views to her, and she could only attribute his desire, to defer the investigation, to a wish that Mr. Mitchell should have time to return from London, whither he had gone to conclude his arrangements with Mr. Touchett, leaving the duty in commission between three delicate winter visitors.
Rachel walked home in a kind of dreamy bewilderment. The first stone in her castle had been loosened, and her heart was beginning to fail her, though the tenacity of her will produced a certain incapacity of believing that she had been absolutely deceived. Her whole fabric was so compact, and had been so much solidified by her own intensity of purpose, that any hollowness of foundation was utterly beyond present credence. She was ready to be affronted with Mauleverer for perilling all for a bad joke, but wildly impossible as this explanation would have seemed to others, she preferred taking refuge in it to accepting the full brunt of the blow upon her cherished hopes.
She had just re-entered the house on her return, when Grace met her, saying, "Oh, Rachel dear, Mrs. Rossitur is here."
"I think old servants have a peculiar propensity for turning up when the house is in a state of turmoil," returned Rachel.
"I have been walking round the garden with her, and doing my best to suffice for her entertainment," said Grace, good-naturedly, "but she really wants to see you on business. She has a bill for the F. U. E. E. which she wants you to pay."
"A bill for the F. U. E. E.?"
"Yes; she makes many apologies for troubling you, but Tom is to be apprenticed to a grocer, and they want this fifteen pounds to make up the fee."
"But I tell you, Grace, there can't have been fifteen pounds' worth of things had in this month, and they were paid on the 1st."
"She says they have never been paid at all since the 1st of December."
"I assure you, Grace, it is in the books. I made a point of having all the accounts brought to me on the 1st of every month, and giving out the money. I gave out L3. 10s. for the Rossiturs last Friday, the 1st of February, when Mr. Mauleverer was over here. He said coals were dearer, and they had to keep more fires."
"There must be some mistake," said Grace. "I'll show you the books. Mr. Mauleverer keeps one himself, and leaves one with me. Oh, botheration, there's the Grey carriage! Well, you go and receive them, and I'll try to pacify Mrs. Rossitur, and then come down."
Neatly kept were these account books of the F. U. E. E,, and sure enough for every month were entered the sums for coals, wood, and potatoes, tallying exactly with Mrs. Rossitur's account, and each month Mr. Mauleverer's signature attested the receipt of the sum paid over to him by Rachel for household expenses. Rachel carried them down to Mrs. Rossitur, but this evidence utterly failed to convince that worthy personage that she had ever received a farthing after the 1st of December. She was profuse in her apologies for troubling Miss Rachel, and had only been led to do so by the exigencies of her son's apprentice fee, and she reposed full confidence in Rachel's eager assurance that she should not be a loser, and that in another day the matter should be investigated.
"And, Miss Rachel," added the old servant, "you'll excuse me, but they do say very odd things of the matron at that place, and I doubt you are deceived in her. Our lads went to the the-a-ter the other night, and I checked them well for it; but mother, says they, we had more call to be there than the governess up to Miss Rachel's schule in Nichol Street, dressed out in pink feathers."
"Well, Mrs. Rossitur, I will make every inquiry, and I do not think you will find anything wrong. There must be some one about very like Mrs. Rawlins. I have heard of those pink feathers before, but I know who the matron is, and all about her! Good-bye. I'll see you again before you go, I suppose it won't be till the seven o'clock train."
Mrs. Rossitur remained expressing her opinion to the butler that dear Miss Rachel was too innocent, and then proceeded to lose all past cares in a happy return to "melting day," in the regions of her past glories as cook and housekeeper.
Rachel repaired to her room to cool her glowing cheeks, and repeat to herself, "A mistake, an error. It must be a blunder! That boy that went to the theatre may have cheated them! Mrs. Rawlins may have deceived Mr. Mauleverer. Anything must be true rather than—No, no! such a tissue of deception is impossible in a man of such sentiments! Persecuted as he has been, shall appearances make me—me, his only friend—turn against him? Oh, me! here come the whole posse purring upstairs to take off their things! I shall be invaded in a moment."
And in came Grace and the two younger ladies, and Rachel was no more her own from that moment.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE FORLORN HOPE.
"She whipped two female 'prentices to death, And hid them in the coal-hole. For her mind Shaped strictest plans of discipline, sage schemes, Such as Lycurgus taught."—Canning and Frere.
The favourite dentist of the neighbourhood dwelt in a grand mansion at St. Norbert's, and thither were conducted Conrade and Francis, as victims to the symmetry of their mouths. Their mother accompanied them to supply the element of tenderness, Alison that of firmness; and, in fact, Lady Temple was in a state of much greater trepidation than either of her sons, who had been promised five shillings each as the reward of fortitude, and did nothing but discuss what they should buy with it.
They escaped with a reprieve to Conrade, and the loss of one tooth of Francis's, and when the rewards had been laid out, and presents chosen for all the stay-at-home children, including Rose, Lady Temple became able to think about other matters. The whole party were in a little den at the pastrycook's; the boys consuming mutton pies, and the ladies ox-tail soup, while waiting to be taken up by the waggonette which had of late been added to the Myrtlewood establishment, when the little lady thus spoke—
"If you don't object, Miss Williams, we will go to Rachel's asylum on our way home."
Miss Williams asked if she had made the appointment.
"No," said Lady Temple, "but you see I can't be satisfied about those woodcuts; and that poor woman, Mrs. Kelland, came to me yesterday about my lace shawl, and she is sadly distressed about the little girl. She was not allowed to see her, you know, and she heard such odd things about the place that I told her that I did not wonder she was in trouble, and that I would try to bring the child home, or at any rate see and talk to her."
"I hope we may be able to see her, but you know Colonel Keith could not get in without making an appointment."
"I pay for her," said Lady Temple, "and I cannot bear its going on in this way without some one seeing about it. The Colonel was quite sure those woodcuts were mere fabrications to deceive Rachel; and there must be something very wrong about those people."
"Did she know that you were going?"
"No; I did not see her before we went. I do not think she will mind it much; and I promised." Lady Temple faltered a little, but gathered courage the next moment. "And indeed, after what Mrs. Kelland said, I could not sleep while I thought I had been the means of putting any poor child into such hands."
"Yes," said Alison, "it is very shocking to leave them there without inquiry, and it is an excellent thing to make the attempt."
And so the order was given to drive to the asylum, Alison marvelling at the courage which prompted this most unexpected assault upon the fortress that had repulsed two such warriors as Colonel Keith and Mrs. Kelland. But timid and tender as she might be, it was not for nothing that Fanny Temple had been a vice-queen, so much accustomed to be welcomed wherever she penetrated, that the notion of a rebuff never suggested itself.
Coombe rang, and his lady made him let herself and Miss Williams out, so that she was on the step when the rough charwoman opened the door, and made the usual reply that Mr. Mauleverer was not within. Lady Temple answered that it was Mrs. Rawlins, the matron, that she wished to see, and with more audacity than Alison thought her capable of, inserted herself within the doorway, so as to prevent herself from being shut out as the girl took her message. The next moment the girl came back saying, "This way, ma'am," opened the door of a small dreary, dusty, cold parlour, where she shut them in, and disappeared before a word could be said.
There they remained so long, that in spite of such encouragement as could be derived from peeping over the blinds at Coombe standing sentinel over his two young masters at the carriage window, Lady Temple began to feel some dismay, though no repentance, and with anxious iteration conjured Miss Williams to guess what could be the cause of delay.
"Making ready for our reception," was Alison's answer in various forms; and Lady Temple repeated by turns, "I do not like it," and "it is very unsatisfactory. No, I don't like it at all," the at all always growing more emphatic.
The climax was, "Things must be very sad, or they would never take so much preparation. I'll tell you, Miss Williams," she added in a low confidential tone; "there are two of us, and the woman cannot be in two places at once. Now, if you go up and see the rooms and all, which I saw long ago, I could stay and talk to the poor children."
Alison was the more surprised at the simple statecraft of the General's widow, but it was prompted by the pitiful heart yearning over the mysterious wrongs of the poor little ones.
At last Mrs. Rawlins sailed in, crape, streamers, and all, with the lowest of curtsies and fullest of apologies for having detained her Ladyship, but she had been sending out in pursuit of Mr. Mauleverer, he would be so disappointed! Lady Temple begged to see the children, and especially Lovedy, whom she said she should like to take home for a holiday.
"Why, my lady, you see Mr. Mauleverer is very particular. I hardly know that I could answer it to him to have one of his little darlings out of his sight. It unsettles a child so to be going home, and Lovedy has a bad cold, my lady, and I am afraid it will run through the house. My little Alice is beginning of it."
However, Lady Temple kept to her desire of seeing Lovedy, and of letting her companion see the rest of the establishment, and they were at last ushered into the room already known to the visitors of the F. U. E. E., where the two children sat as usual in white pinafores, but it struck the ladies that all looked ill, and Lovedy was wrapped in a shawl, and sat cowering in a dull, stupified way, unlike the bright responsive manner for which she had been noted even in her lace-school days. Mary Morris gazed for a moment at Alison with a wistful appealing glance, then, with a start as of fright, put on a sullen stolid look, and kept her eyes on her book. The little Alice, looking very heavy and feverish, leant against her, and Mrs. Rawlins went on talking of the colds, the gruel she had made, and her care for her pupils' ailments, and Lady Temple listened so graciously that Alison feared she was succumbing to the palaver; and by way of reminder, asked to see the dormitory.
"Oh, yes, ma'am, certainly, though we are rather in confusion," and she tried to make both ladies precede her, but Lady Temple, for once assuming the uncomprehending nonchalance of a fine lady, seated herself languidly and motioned Alison on. The matron was evidently perplexed, she looked daggers at the children, or Ailie fancied so, but she was forced to follow the governess. Lady Temple breathed more freely, and rose. "My poor child," she said to Lovedy, "you seem very poorly. Have you any message to your aunt?"
"Please, please!" began Lovedy, with a hoarse sob.
"Lovedy, don't, don't be a bad girl, or you know—" interposed the little one, in a warning whisper.
"She is not naughty," said Lady Temple gently, "only not well."
"Please, my lady, look," eagerly, though with a fugitive action of terror, Lovedy cried, unpinning the thin coarse shawl on her neck, and revealing the terrible stripes and weals of recent beating, such as nearly sickened Lady Temple.
"Oh, Lovedy," entreated Alice, "she'll take the big stick."
"She could not do her work," interposed Mary with furtive eagerness, "she is so poorly, and Missus said she would have the twenty sprigs if she sat up all night."
"Yes, ma'am, we makes lace more than ever we did to home, day and night; and if we don't she takes the stick."
"Oh, Mary," implored the child, "she said if you said one word."
"Mary," said Lady Temple, trembling all over, "where are your bonnets?"
"We haven't none, ma'am," returned Mary, "she pawned them. But, oh, ma'am, please take us away. We are used dreadful bad, and no one knows it."
Lady Temple took Lovedy in one hand, and Mary in the other; then looked at the other little girl, who stood as if petrified. She handed the pair to the astonished Coombe, bidding him put them into the carriage, and let Master Temple go outside, and then faced about to defend the rear, her rustling black silk and velvet filling up the passage, just as Alison and the matron were coming down stairs.
"Mrs. Rawlins," she said, in her gentle dignity, "I think Lovedy is so poorly that she ought to go home to her aunt to be nursed, and I have taken little Mary that she may not be left behind alone. Please to tell Mr. Mauleverer that I take it all upon myself. The other little girl is not at all to blame, and I hope you will take care of her, for she looks very ill."
So much for being a Governor's widow! A woman of thrice Fanny's energy and capacity would not have effected her purpose so simply, and made the virago in the matron so entirely quail. She swept forth with such a consciousness of power and ease that few could have had assurance enough to gainsay her, but no sooner was she in the carriage than she seized Mary's hand, exclaiming, "My poor, poor little dear! Francis, dear boy, the wicked people have been beating her! Oh, Miss Williams, look at her poor neck!"
Alison lifting Lovedy on her knee, glanced under the shawl, and saw indeed a sad spectacle, and she felt such a sharpness of bone as proved that there was far from being the proper amount of clothing or of flesh to protect them. Lady Temple looked at Mary's attenuated hand, and fairly sobbed, "Oh, you have been cruelly treated!"
"Please don't let her get us," cried the frightened Mary.
"Never, never, my dear. We are taking you home to your mother."
Mary Morris was the spokeswoman, and volunteered the exhibition of bruises rather older, but no less severe than those of her companion. All had been inflicted by the woman; Mr. Mauleverer had seldom or never been seen by the children, except Alice, who used often to be called into Mrs. Rawlins's parlour when he was there, to be played with and petted. A charwoman was occasionally called in, but otherwise the entire work of the house was exacted from the two girls, and they had been besides kept perpetually to their lace pillows, and severely beaten if they failed in the required amount of work; the ample wardrobe with which their patronesses had provided them had been gradually taken from them, and their fare had latterly become exceedingly coarse, and very scanty. It was a sad story, and this last clause evoked from Francis's pocket a large currant bun, which Mary devoured with a famished appetite, but Lovedy held her portion untasted in her hand, and presently gave it to Mary, saying that her throat was so bad that she could not make use of anything. She had already been wrapped in Lady Temple's cloak, and Francis was desired to watch for a chemist's shop that something might be done for her relief, but the region of shops was already left behind, and even the villas were becoming scantier, so that nothing was to be done but to drive on, obtaining from time to time further doleful narratives from Mary, and perceiving more and more how ill and suffering was the other poor child.
Moreover, Lady Temple's mind became extremely uneasy as to the manner in which Rachel might accept her exploit. All her valour departed as she figured to herself that young lady discrediting the alarm, and resenting her interference. She did not repent, she knew she could not have helped it, and she had rather have been tortured by Rachel than have left the victims another hour to the F. U. E. E., but she was full of nervous anxiety, little as she yet guessed at the full price of her courage; and she uttered more than once the fervent wish that the Colonel had been there, for he would have known what to do. And Alison each time replied, "I wish it with all my heart!"
Wrought up at last to the pitch of nervousness that must rush on the crisis at once, and take the bull by the horns, this valiant piece of cowardice declared that she could not even return the girls to their homes till Rachel knew all about it, and gave the word to drive to the Homestead, further cheered by the recollection that Colonel Keith would probably be there, having been asked to luncheon, as he could not dine out, to meet Mr. Grey. Moreover, Mr. Grey was a magistrate and would know what was to be done.
Thus the whole party at the Homestead were assembled near the door, when, discerning them too late to avoid them, Lady Temple's equipage drew up in the peculiarly ungraceful fashion of waggonettes, when they prepare to shoot their passengers out behind.
Conrade, the only person who had the advantage of a previous view, stood up on the box, and before making his descent, shouted out, "Oh, Aunt Rachel, your F. U. thing is as bad as the Sepoys. But we have saved the two little girls that they were whipping to death, and have got them in the carriage."
While this announcement was being delivered, Alison Williams, the nearest to the door, had emerged. She lifted out the little muffled figure of Lovedy, set her on her feet, and then looking neither to the right nor left, as if she saw and thought of no one else, made but one bound towards Colonel Keith, clasped both hands round his arm, turned him away from the rest, and with her black brows drawn close together, gasped under her breath, "O, Colin, Colin, it is Maria Hatherton."
"What! the matron?"
"Yes, the woman that has used these poor children like a savage. O, Colin, it is frightful."
"You should sit down, you are almost ready to faint."
"Nothing! nothing! But the poor girls are in such a state. And that Maria whom we taught, and—" Alison stopped.
"Did she know you?"
"I can't tell. Perhaps; but I did not know her till the last moment."
"I have long believed that the man that Rose recognised was Mauleverer, but I thought the uncertainty would be bad for Ermine. What is all this?"
"You will hear. There! Listen, I can't tell you; Lady Temple did it all," said Alison, trying to draw away her arm from him, and to assume the staid governess. But he felt her trembling, and did not release her from his support as they fanned back to the astonished group, to which, while these few words were passing, Francis, the little bareheaded white-aproned Mary Morris, and lastly Lady Temple, had by this time been added; and Fanny, with quick but courteous acknowledgment of all, was singling out her cousin.
"Oh, Rachel, dear, I did not mean it to have been so sudden or before them all, but indeed I could not help it," she said in her gentle, imploring voice, "if you only saw that poor dear child's neck."
Rachel had little choice what she should say or do. What Fanny was saying tenderly and privately, the two boys were communicating open-mouthed, and Mrs. Curtis came at once with her nervous, "What is it, my dear; is it something very sad? Those poor children look very cold, and half starved."
"Indeed," said Fanny, "they have been starved, and beaten, and cruelly used. I am very sorry, Rachel, but indeed that was a dreadful woman, and I thought Colonel Keith and Mr. Grey would tell us what ought to be done."
"Mr. Grey!" and Mrs. Curtis turned round eagerly, with the comfort of having some one to support her, "will you tell us what is to be done? Here has poor dear Rachel been taken in by this wicked scheme, and these poor—"
"Mother, mother," muttered Rachel, lashed up to desperation; "please not out here, before the servants and every one."
This appeal and Grace's opening of the door had the effect of directing every one into the hall, Mr. Grey asking Mrs. Curtis by the way, "Eh? Then this is Rachel's new female asylum, is it?"
"Yes, I always feared there was something odd about it. I never liked that man, and now—Fanny, my love, what is the matter?"
In a few simple words Fanny answered that she had contrived to be left alone with the children, and had then found signs of such shocking ill-treatment of them, that she had thought it right to bring them away at once.
"And you will commit those wretches. You will send them to prison at once, Mr. Grey. They have been deceiving my poor Rachel ever so long, and getting sums upon sums of money out of her," said Mrs. Curtis, becoming quite blood-thirsty.
"If there is sufficient occasion I will summon the persons concerned to the Bench on Wednesday," said Mr. Grey, a practical, active squire.
"Not till Wednesday!" said Mrs. Curtis, as if she thought the course of justice very tardy. But the remembrance of Mr. Curtis's magisterial days came to her aid, and she continued, "but you can take all the examinations here at once, you know; and Grace can find you a summons paper, if you will just go into the study."
"It might save the having the children over to-morrow, certainly," said Mr. Grey, and he was inducted almost passively into the leathern chair before the library table, where Mr. Curtis had been wont to administer justice, and Grace was diving deep into a bureau for the printed forms long treasured there, her mother directing her, though Mr. Grey vainly protested that any foolscap would do as well. It was a curious scene. Mrs. Grey with her daughters had the discretion to remove themselves, but every one else was in a state of excitement, and pressed into the room, the two boys disputing under their breath whether the civilians called it a court martial, and, with some confusion between mutineers and Englishwomen, hoping the woman would be blown from the mouth of a cannon, for hadn't she gone and worn a cap like mamma's? They would have referred the question to Miss Williams, but she had been deposited by the Colonel on one of the chairs in the furthest corner of the room, and he stood sheltering her agitation and watching the proceedings. Lady Temple still held a hand of each of her rescued victims, as if she feared they were still in danger, and all the time Rachel stood and looked like a statue, unable to collect her convictions in the hubbub, and the trust, that would have enabled her to defy all this, swept away from her by the morning's transactions. Yet still there was a hope that appearances might be delusive, and an habitual low estimate of Mr. Grey's powers that made her set on looking with her own eyes, not with his.
His first question was about the children's names and their friends, and this led to the despatching of a message to the mother and aunt. He then inquired about the terms on which they had been placed at St. Norbert's, and Rachel, who was obliged to reply, felt under his clear, stringent questions, keeping close to the point, a good deal more respect for his powers than she had hitherto entertained. That dry way of his was rather overwhelming. When it came to the children themselves, Rachel watched, not without a hope that the clear masculine intellect would detect Fanny in a more frightened woman's fancy, and bring the F. U. E. E. off with flying colours.
Little Mary Morris stood forth valiant and excited. She was eleven years old, and intelligent enough to make it evident that she knew what she was about. The replies were full. The blows were described, with terrible detail of the occasions and implements. Still Rachel remembered the accusation of Mary's truth. She tried to doubt.
"I saw her with a bruised eye," said the Colonel's unexpected voice in a pause. "How was that?"
"Please, sir, Mrs. Rawlins hit me with her fist because I had only done seven sprigs. She knocked me down, and I did not come to for ever so long."
And not only this, and the like sad narratives, but each child bore the marks in corroboration of the words, which were more reluctant and more hoarse from Lovedy, but even more effective. Rachel doubted no more after the piteous sight of those scarred shoulders, and the pinched feeble face; but one thing was plain, namely, that Mr. Mauleverer had no share in the cruelties. Even such severities as had been perpetrated while he was in the house, had, Mary thought, been protested against by him, but she had seldom seen him, he paid all his visits in the little parlour, and took no notice of the children except to prepare the tableau for public inspection. Mr. Grey, looking at his notes, said that there was full evidence to justify issuing a summons against the woman for assaulting the children, and proceeded to ask her name. Then while there was a question whether her Christian name was known, the Colonel again said, "I believe her name to be Maria Hatherton. Miss Williams has recognised her as a servant who once lived in her family, and who came from her father's parish at Beauchamp."
Alison on inquiry corroborated the statement, and the charge was made against Maria Rawlins, alias Hatherton. The depositions were read over to the children, and signed by them; with very trembling fingers by poor little Lovedy, and Mr. Grey said he would send a policeman with the summons early next day.
"But, Mr. Grey," burst out Mrs. Curtis, "you don't mean that you are not going to do anything to that man! Why he has been worse than the woman! It was he that entrapped the poor children, and my poor Rachel here, with his stories of magazines and illustrations, and I don't know what all!"
"Very true, Mrs. Curtis," said the magistrate, "but where's the charge against him?"
It may be conceived how pleasant it was to the clever woman of the family to hear her mother declaiming on the arts by which she had been duped by this adventurer, appealing continually to Grace and Fanny, and sometimes to herself, and all before Mr. Grey, on whose old-world prejudices she had bestowed much more antagonism than he had thought it worth while to bestow on her new lights. Yet, at the moment, this operation of being written down an ass, was less acutely painful to her than the perception that was simultaneously growing on her of the miserable condition of poor little Lovedy, whose burning hand she held, and whose gasping breath she heard, as the child rested feebly in the chair in which she had been placed. Rachel had nothing vindictive or selfish in her mood, and her longing was, above all, to get away, and minister to the poor child's present sufferings; but she found herself hemmed in, and pinned down by the investigation pushed on by her mother, involving answers and explanations that she alone could make.
Mr. Grey rubbed his forehead, and looked freshly annoyed at each revelation of the state of things. It had not been Mauleverer, but Rachel, who had asked subscriptions for the education of the children, he had but acted as her servant, the counterfeit of the woodcuts, which Lady Temple suggested, could not be construed into an offence; and it looked very much as if, thanks to his cleverness, and Rachel's incaution, there was really no case to be made out against him, as if the fox had carried off the bait without even leaving his brush behind him. Sooth to say, the failure was a relief to Rachel, she had thrown so much of her will and entire self into the upholding him, that she could not yet detach herself or sympathize with those gentle souls, the mother and Fanny, in keenly hunting him down. Might he not have been as much deceived in Mrs. Rawlins as herself? At any rate she hoped for time to face the subject, and kneeling on the ground so as to support little Lovedy's sinking head on her shoulder, made the briefest replies in her power when referred to. At last, Grace recollected the morning's affair of Mrs. Rossitur's bills. Mr. Grey looked as if he saw daylight, Grace volunteered to fetch both the account-book and Mrs. Rossitur, and Rachel found the statement being extracted from her of the monthly production of the bills, with the entries in the book, and of her having given the money for their payment. Mr. Grey began to write, and she perceived that he was taking down her deposition. She beckoned Mary to support her poor little companion, and rising to her feet, said, to the horror and consternation of her mother, "Mr. Grey, pray let me speak to you!"
He rose at once, and followed her to the hall, where he looked prepared to be kind but firm.
"Must this be done to-day?" she said.
"Why not?" he answered.
"I want time to think about it. The woman has acted like a fiend, and I have not a word to say for her; but I cannot feel that it is fair, after such long and entire trust of this man, to turn on him suddenly without notice."
"Do you mean that you will not prosecute?" said Mr. Grey, with a dozen notes of interjection in his voice.
"I have not said so. I want time to make up my mind, and to hear what he has to say for himself."
"You will hear that at the Bench on Wednesday."
"It will not be the same thing."
"I should hope not!"
"You see," said Rachel, perplexed and grievously wanting time to rally her forces, "I cannot but feel that I have trusted too easily, and perhaps been to blame myself for my implicit confidence, and after that it revolts me to throw the whole blame on another."
"If you have been a simpleton, does that make him an honest man?" said Mr. Grey, impatiently.
"No," said Rachel, "but—"
"My credulity may have caused his dishonesty," she said, bringing, at last, the words to serve the idea.
"Look you here, Rachel," said Mr. Grey, constraining himself to argue patiently with his old friend's daughter; "it does not simply lie between you and him—a silly girl who has let herself be taken in by a sharper. That would be no more than giving a sixpence to a fellow that tells me he lost his arm at Sebastopol when he has got it sewn up in a bag. But you have been getting subscriptions from all the world, making yourself answerable to them for having these children educated, and then, for want of proper superintendence, or the merest rational precaution, leaving them to this barbarous usage. I don't want to be hard upon you, but you are accountable for all this; you have made yourself so, and unless you wish to be regarded as a sharer in the iniquity, the least you can do by way of compensation, is not to make yourself an obstruction to the course of justice."
"I don't much care how I am regarded," said Rachel, with subdued tone and sunken head; "I only want to do right, and not act spitefully and vindictively before he has had warning to defend himself."
"Or to set off to delude as many equal foo—mistaken people as he can find elsewhere! Eh, Rachel? Don't you see, it this friend of yours be innocent, a summons will not hurt him, it will only give him the opportunity of clearing himself."
"Yes, I see," owned Rachel, and overpowered, though far from satisfied, she allowed herself to be brought back, and did what was required of her, to the intense relief of her mother. During her three minute conference no one in the study had ventured on speaking or stirring, and Mrs. Curtis would not thank her biographer for recording the wild alarms that careered through her brain, as to the object of her daughter's tete-a-tete with the magistrate.
It was over at last, and the hall of justice broke up. Mary Morris was at once in her mother's arms, and in a few minutes more making up for all past privations by a substantial meal in the kitchen. But Mrs. Kelland had gone to Avoncester to purchase thread, and only her daughter Susan had come up, the girl who was supposed to be a sort of spider, with no capacities beyond her web. Nor did Rachel think Lovedy capable of walking down to Mackarel Lane, nor well enough for the comfortless chairs and the third part of a bed. No, Mr. Grey's words that Rachel was accountable for the children's sufferings had gone to her heart. Pity was there and indignation, but these had brought such an anguish of self-accusation as she could only appease by lavishing personal care upon the chief sufferer. She carried the child to her own sitting-room and made a couch for her before the fire, sending Susan away with the assurance that Lovedy should stay at the Homestead, and be nursed and fed till she was well and strong again. Fanny, who had accompanied her, thought the child very ill, and was urgent that the doctor should be sent for; but between Rachel and the faculty of Avonmouth there was a deadly feud, and the proposal was scouted. Hunger and a bad cold were easily treated, and maybe there was a spark of consolation in having a patient all to herself and her homoeopathic book.
So Fanny and her two boys walked down the hill together in the dark. Colonel Keith and Alison Williams had already taken the same road, anxiously discussing the future. Alison asked why Colin had not given Mauleverer's alias. "I had no proof," he said. "You were sure of the woman, but so far it is only guess work with him; though each time Rose spoke of seeing Maddox coincided with one of Mauleverer's visits. Besides, Alison, on the back of that etching in Rose's book is written, Mrs. Williams, from her humble and obliged servant, R. Maddox.'"
"And you said nothing about it?"
"No, I wished to make myself secure, and to see my way before speaking out."
"What shall you do? Can you trust to Rose's identifying him?"
"I shall ride in to-morrow to see what is going on, and judge if it will be well to let her see this man, if he have not gone off, as I should fear was only too likely. Poor little Lady Temple, her exploit has precipitated matters."
"And you will let every one, Dr. Long and all, know what a wretch they have believed. And then—"
"Stay, Alison, I am afraid they will not take Maddox's subsequent guilt as a proof of Edward's innocence."
"It is a proof that his stories were not worth credit."
"To you and me it is, who do not need such proof. It is possible that among his papers something may be found that may implicate him and clear Edward, but we can only hold off and watch. And I greatly fear both man and woman will have slipped through our fingers, especially if she knew you."
"Poor Maria, who could have thought of such frightful barbarity?" sighed Alison. "I knew she was a passionate girl, but this is worse than one can bear to believe."
She ceased, for she had been inexpressibly shocked, and her heart still yearned towards every Beauchamp school child.
"I suppose we must tell Ermine," she added; "indeed, I know I could not help it."
"Nor I," he said, smiling, "though there is only too much fear that nothing will come of it but disappointment. At least, she will tell us how to meet that."
CHAPTER XIX. THE BREWST SHE BREWED.
"Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given." Timon of Athens.
Under the circumstances of the Curtis family, no greater penance could have been devised than the solemn dinner party which had to take place only an hour after the investigation was closed. Grace in especial was nearly distracted between her desire to calm her mother and to comfort her sister, and the necessity of attending to the Grey family, who repaid themselves for their absence from the scene of action by a torrent of condolences and questions, whence poor Grace gathered to her horror and consternation that the neighbourhood already believed that a tenderer sentiment than philanthropy had begun to mingle in Rachel's relations with the secretary of the F. U. E. E. Feeling it incumbent on the whole family to be as lively and indifferent as possible, Grace, having shut her friends into their rooms to perform their toilette, hurried to her sister, to find her so entirely engrossed with her patient as absolutely to have forgotten the dinner party. No wonder! She had had to hunt up a housemaid to make up a bed for Lovedy in a little room within her own, and the undressing and bathing of the poor child had revealed injuries even in a more painful state than those which had been shown to Mr. Grey, shocking emaciation, and most scanty garments. The child was almost torpid, and spoke very little. She was most unwilling to attempt to swallow; however, Rachel thought that some of her globules had gone down, and put much faith in them, and in warmth and sleep; but incessantly occupied, and absolutely sickened by the sight of the child's hurts, she looked up with loathing at Grace's entreaty that she would, dress for the dinner.
"Impossible," she said.
"You must, Rachel dear; indeed, you must."
"As if I could leave her."
"Nay, Rachel, but if you would only send—"
"Nonsense, Grace; if I can stay with her I can restore her far better than could an allopathist, who would not leave nature to herself. O Grace, why can't you leave me in peace? Is it not bad enough without this?"
"Dear Rachel, I am very sorry; but if you did not come down to dinner, think of the talk it would make."
"Let them talk."
"Ah, Rachel, but the mother! Think how dreadful the day's work has been to her; and how can she ever get through the evening if she is in a fright at your not coming down?"
"Dinner parties are one of the most barbarous institutions of past stupidity," said Rachel, and Grace was reassured. She hovered over Rachel while Rachel hovered over the sick child, and between her own exertions and those of two maids, had put her sister into an evening dress by the time the first carriage arrived. She then rushed to her own room, made her own toilette, and returned to find Rachel in conference with Mrs. Kelland, who had come home at last, and was to sit with her niece during the dinner. Perhaps it was as well for all parties that this first interview was cut very short, but Rachel's burning cheeks did not promise much for the impression of ease and indifference she was to make, as Grace's whispered reminders of "the mother's" distress dragged her down stairs among the all too curious glances of the assembled party.
All had been bustle. Not one moment for recollection had yet been Rachel's. Mr. Grey's words, "Accountable for all," throbbed in her ears and echoed in her brain—the purple bruises, the red stripes, verging upon sores, were before her eyes, and the lights, the flowers, the people and their greetings, were like a dizzy mist. The space before dinner was happily but brief, and then, as last lady, she came in as a supernumerary on the other arm of Grace's cavalier, and taking the only vacant chair, found herself between a squire and Captain Keith, who had duly been bestowed on Emily Grey.
Here there was a moment's interval of quiet, for the squire was slightly deaf, and, moreover, regarded her as a little pert girl, not to be encouraged, while Captain Keith was resigned to the implied homage of the adorer of his cross; so that, though the buzz of talk and the clatter of knives and forks roared louder than it had ever seemed to do since she had been a child, listening from the outside, the immediate sense of hurry and confusion, and the impossibility of seeing or hearing anything plainly, began to diminish. She could not think, but she began to wonder whether any one knew what had happened; and, above all, she perfectly dreaded the quiet sting of her neighbour's word and eye, in this consummation of his victory. If he glanced at her, she knew she could not bear it; and if he never spoke to her at all, it would be marked reprehension, which would be far better than sarcasm. He was evidently conscious of her presence; for when, in her insatiable thirst, she had drained her own supply of water, she found the little bottle quietly exchanged for that before him. It was far on in the dinner before Emily's attention was claimed by the gentleman on her other hand, and then there was a space of silence before Captain Keith almost made Rachel start, by saying—
"This has come about far more painfully than could have been expected."
"I thought you would have triumphed," she said.
"No, indeed. I feel accountable for the introduction that my sister brought upon you."
"It was no fault of hers," said Rachel, sadly.
"I wish I could feel it so."
"That was a mere chance. The rest was my own doing."
"Aided and abetted by more than one looker-on."
"No. It is I who am accountable," she said, repeating Mr. Grey's words.
"You accept the whole?"
It was his usual, cool, dry tone; but as she replied, "I must," she involuntarily looked up, with a glance of entreaty to be spared, and she met those dark, grey, heavy-lidded eyes fixed on her with so much concern as almost to unnerve her.
"You cannot," he answered; "every bystander must rue the apathy that let you be so cruelly deceived, for want of exertion on their part."
"Nay," she said; "you tried to open my eyes. I think this would have come worse, but for this morning's stroke."
"Thank you," he said, earnestly.
"I daresay you know more than I have been able to understand," she presently added; "it is like being in the middle of an explosion, without knowing what stands or falls."
"And lobster salad as an aggravation!" said he, as the dish successively persecuted them. "This dinner is hard on you."
"Very; but my mother would have been unhappy if I had stayed away. It is the leaving the poor child that grieves me. She is in a fearful state, between sore throat, starvation, and blows."
The picture of the effect of the blows coming before Rachel at that moment, perilled her ability even to sit through the dinner; but her companion saw the suddening whitening of her cheek, and by a dexterous signal at once caused her glass to be filled. Habit was framing her lips to say something about never drinking wine; but somehow she felt a certain compulsion in his look, and her compliance restored her. She returned to the subject, saying, "But it was only the woman that was cruel."
"She had not her Sepoy face for nothing."
"Did I hear that Miss Williams knew her?"
"Yes, it seems she was a maid who had once been very cruel to little Rose Williams. The Colonel seems to think the discovery may have important consequences. I hardly know how."
This conversation sent Rachel out of the dining-room more like herself than she had entered it; but she ran upstairs at once to Lovedy, and remained with her till disinterred by the desperate Grace, who could not see three people talking together without blushing with indignation at the construction they were certainly putting on her sister's scarlet cheeks and absence from the drawing-room. With all Grace's efforts, however, she could not bring her truant back before the gentlemen had come in. Captain Keith had seen their entrance, and soon came up to Rachel.
"How is your patient?" he asked.
"She is very ill; and the worst of it is, that it seems such agony to her to attempt to swallow."
"Have you had advice for her?"
"No; I have often treated colds, and I thought this a case, aggravated by that wicked treatment."
"Have you looked into her mouth?"
"Yes; the skin is frightfully brown and dry."
He leant towards her, and asked, in an under tone—
"Did you ever see diphtheria?"
"No!"—her brow contracting—"did you?"
"Yes; we had it through all the children of the regiment at Woolwich."
"You think this is it?"
He asked a few more questions, and his impression was evidently confirmed.
"I must send for Mr. Frampton," said Rachel, homeopathy succumbing to her terror; but then, with a despairing glance, she beheld all the male part of the establishment handing tea.
"Where does he live? I'll send him up."
"Thank you, oh! thank you. The house with the rails, under the east cliff."
He was gone, and Rachel endured the reeling of the lights, and the surges of talk, and the musical performances that seemed to burst the drum of her ear; and, after all, people went away, saying to each other that there was something very much amiss, and that poor dear Mrs. Curtis was very much to blame for not having controlled her daughters.
They departed at last, and Grace, without uttering the terrible word, was explaining to the worn-out mother that little Lovedy was more unwell, and that Captain Keith had kindly offered to fetch the doctor, when the Captain himself returned.
"I am sorry to say that Mr. Frampton is out, not likely to be at home till morning, and his partner is with a bad accident at Avonford. The best plan will be for me to ride back to Avoncester, and send out Macvicar, our doctor. He is a kind-hearted man, of much experience in this kind of thing."
"But you are not going back," said polite Mrs. Curtis, far from taking in the urgency of the case. "You were to sleep at Colonel Keith's. I could not think of your taking the trouble."
"I have settled that with the Colonel, thank you. My dog-cart will be here directly."
"I can only say, thank you," said Rachel, earnestly. "But is there nothing to be done in the meantime? Do you know the treatment?"
He knew enough to give a few directions, which revealed to poor Mrs. Curtis the character of the disease.
"That horrible new sore throat! Oh, Rachel, and you have been hanging over her all this time!"
"Indeed," said Alick Keith, coming to her. "I think you need not be alarmed. The complaint seems to me to depend on the air and locality. I have been often with people who had it."
"And not caught it?"
"No; though one poor little fellow, our piper's son, would not try to take food from any one else, and died at last on my knee. I do not believe it is infectious in that way."
And hearing his carriage at the door, he shook hands, and hurried off, Mrs. Curtis observing—
"He really is a very good young man. But oh, Rachel, my dear, how could you bring her here?"
"I did not know, mother. Any way it is better than her being in Mrs. Kelland's hive of children."
"You are not going back to her, Rachel, I entreat!"
"Mother, I must. You heard what Captain Keith said. Let that comfort you. It would be brutal cruelty and cowardice to stay away from her to night. Good night, Grace, make mother see that it must be so."
She went, for poor Mrs. Curtis could not withstand her; and only turned with tearful eyes to her elder daughter to say, "You do not go into the room again, Grace, I insist."
Grace could not bear to leave Rachel to the misery of such a vigil, and greatly reproached herself for the hurry that had prevented her from paying any heed to the condition of the child in her anxiety to make her sister presentable; but Mrs. Curtis was in a state of agitation that demanded all the care and tenderness of this "mother's child," and the sharing her room and bed made it impossible to elude the watchfulness that nervously guarded the remaining daughter.
It was eleven o'clock when Alexander Keith drove from the door. It was a moonlight night, and he was sure to spare no speed, but he could hardly be at Avoncester within an hour and a half, and the doctor would take at least two in coming out. Mrs. Kelland was the companion of Rachel's watch. The woman was a good deal subdued. The strangeness of the great house tamed her, and she was shocked and frightened by the little girl's state as well as by the young lady's grave, awe-struck, and silent manner.
They tried all that Captain Keith had suggested, but the child was too weak and spent to inhale the steam of vinegar, and the attempts to make her swallow produced fruitless anguish. They could not discover how long it was since she had taken any nourishment, and they already knew what a miserable pittance hers had been at the best. Mrs. Kelland gave her up at once, and protested that she was following her mother, and that there was death in her face. Rachel made an imperious gesture of silence, and was obeyed so far as voice went, but long-drawn sighs and shakes of the head continued to impress on her the aunt's hopelessness, throughout the endeavours to change the position, the moistening of the lips, the attempts at relief in answer to the choked effort to cough, the weary, faint moan, the increasing faintness and exhaustion.
One o'clock struck, and Mrs. Kelland said, in a low, ominous voice, "It is the turn of the night, Miss Rachel. You bad best leave her to me."
"I will never leave her," said Rachel impatiently.
"You are a young lady, Miss Rachel, you ain't used to the like of this."
"Hark!" Rachel held up her finger.
Wheels were crashing up the hill. The horrible responsibility was over, the immediate terror gone, help seemed to be coming at the utmost speed, and tears of relief rushed into Rachel's eyes, tears that Lovedy must have perceived, for she spoke the first articulate words she had uttered since the night-watch had begun, "Please, ma'am, don't fret, I'm going to poor mother."
"You will be better now, Lovedy, here is the doctor," said Rachel, though conscious that this was not the right thing, and then she hastened out on the stairs to meet the gaunt old Scotsman and bring him in. He made Mrs. Kelland raise the child, examined her mouth, felt her feet and hands, which were fast becoming chill, and desired the warm flannels still to be applied to them.
"Cannot her throat be operated on?" said Rachel, a tremor within her heart. "I think we could both be depended on if you wanted us."
"She is too far gone, poor lassie," was the answer; "it would be mere cruelty to torment her. You had better go and lie down, Miss Curtis; her mother and I can do all she is like to need."
"Is she dying?"
"I doubt if she can last an hour longer. The disease is in an advanced state, and she was in too reduced a state to have battled with it, even had it been met earlier."
"As it should have been! Twice her destroyer!" sighed Rachel, with a bursting heart, and again the kind doctor would have persuaded her to leave the room, but she turned from him and came back to Lovedy, who had been roused by what had been passing, and had been murmuring something which had set her aunt off into sobs.
"She's saying she've been a bad girl to me, poor lamb, and I tell her not to think of it! She knows it was for her good, if she had not been set against her work."
Dr. Macvicar authoritatively hushed the woman, but Lovedy looked up with flushed cheeks, and the blue eyes that had been so often noticed for their beauty. The last flush of fever had come to finish the work.
"Don't fret," she said, "there's no one to beat me up there! Please, the verse about the tears."
Dr. Macvicar and the child both looked towards Rachel, but her whole memory seemed scared away, and it was the old Scotch army surgeon that repeated—
"'The Lord God shall wipe off tears from all eyes.' Ah! poor little one, you are going from a world that has been full of woe to you."
"Oh, forgive me, forgive me, my poor child," said Rachel, kneeling by her, the tears streaming down silently.
"Please, ma'am, don't cry," said the little girl feebly; "you were very good to me. Please tell me of my Saviour," she added to Rachel. It sounded like set phraseology, and she knew not how to begin; but Dr. Macvicar's answer made the lightened look come back, and the child was again heard to whisper—"Ah! I knew they scourged Him—for me."
This was the last they did hear, except the sobbing breaths, ever more convulsive. Rachel had never before been present with death, and awe and dismay seemed to paralyse her whole frame. Even the words of hope and prayer for which the child's eyes craved from both her fellow-watchers seemed to her a strange tongue, inefficient to reach the misery of this untimely mortal agony, this work of neglect and cruelty—and she the cause.
Three o'clock had struck before the last painful gasp had been drawn, and Mrs. Kelland's sobbing cry broke forth. Dr. Macvicar told Rachel that the child was at rest. She shivered from head to foot, her teeth chattered, and she murmured, "Accountable for all."
Dr. Macvicar at once made her swallow some of the cordial brought for the poor child, and then summoning the maid whom Grace had stationed in the outer room, he desired her to put her young mistress to bed without loss of time. The sole remaining desire of which she was conscious was to be alone and in the dark, and she passively submitted.
CHAPTER XX. THE SARACEN'S HEAD.
"Alas, he thought, how changed that mien, How changed those timid looks have been, Since years of guilt and of disguise Have steeled her brow and armed her eyes." Marmion.
"Are you sleepy, Rose? What a yawn!"
"Not sleepy, Aunt Ailie; only it is such a tiresome long day when the Colonel does not come in."
"Take care, Rosie; I don't know what we shall be good for at this rate."
"We? O Aunt Ermine, then you think it tiresome too. I know you do—"
"What's that, Rose!"
"It is! it is! I'll open the door for him."
The next moment Rose led her Colonel in triumph into the lamp-light. There was a bright light in his eye, and yet he looked pale, grave, and worn; and Ermine's first observation was—
"How came Tibbie to let you out at this time of night?"
"I have not ventured to encounter Tibbie at all. I drove up to your door."
"You have been at St. Norbert's all this time," exclaimed Alison.
"Do you think no one can carry on a campaign at St. Norbert's but yourself and your generalissima, Miss Ailie?" he said, stroking down Rose's brown hair.
"Then, if you have not gone home, you have had nothing to eat, and that is the reason you look so tired," said Ermine.
"Yes; I had some luncheon at the Abbey."
"Then, at any rate, you shall have some tea. Rosie, run and fetch the little kettle."
"And the Beauchamp cup and saucer," added Rose, proudly producing the single relic of a well-remembered set of olden times. "And please, please, Aunt Ermine, let me sit up to make it for him. I have not seen him all day, you know; and it is the first time he ever drank tea in our house, except make-believe with Violetta and Colinette."
"No, Rose. Your aunt says I spoil that child, and I am going to have my revenge upon you. You must see the wild beast at his meals another time; for it just happens that I have a good deal to say to your aunts, and it is not intended for your ears."
Rose showed no signs of being spoilt, for she only entreated to be allowed "just to put the tea-things in order," and then, winking very hard, she said she would go.
"Here, Rose, if you please," said Ermine, clearing the space of table before her.
"Why, Aunt Ermine, I did not know you could make tea!"
"There are such things as extraordinary occasions, Rose. Now, good night, my sweet one."
"Good night, my Lady Discretion. We will make up for it one of these days. Don't stay away, pray, Ailie," as Alison was following the child. "I have nothing to say till you come back."
"I know it is good news," said Ermine; "but it has cost you something, Colin."
Instead of answering, he received his cup from her, filled up her tea-pot, and said—
"How long is it since you poured out tea for me, Ermine?"
"Thirteen years next June, when you and Harry used to come in from the cricket field, so late and hot that you were ashamed to present yourself in civilized society at the Great House."
"As if nobody from the Parsonage ever came down to look on at the cricket."
"Yes; being summoned by all the boys to see that nothing would teach a Scotchman cricket."
"Ah! you have got the last word, for here comes Ailie."
"Of course," said Alison, coming in; "Ermine has had the pith of the story, so I had better ask at once what it is."
"That the Beauchamp Eleven beat Her Majesty's —th Foot on Midsummer Day, 1846, is the pith of what I have as yet heard," said Ermine.
"And that Beauchamp ladies are every whit as full of mischief as they used to be in those days, is the sum of what I have told," added Colin.
"Yes," said Ermine, "he has most loyally kept his word of reserving all for you. He has not even said whether Mauleverer is taken."
"My story is grave and sad enough," said Colin, laying aside all his playfulness, and a serious expression coming over his features; but, at the same time, the landlady's sandy cat, which, like all other animals, was very fond of him, and had established herself on his knee as soon as Rose had left it vacant, was receiving a certain firm, hard, caressing stroking, which resulted in vehement purrs on her part, and was evidently an outlet of suppressed exaltation.
"Is he the same?" asked Alison.
"All in due time; unless, like Miss Rachel, you wish to tell me my story yourselves. By-the-bye, how is that poor girl to-day?"
"Thoroughly knocked down. There is a sort of feverish lassitude about her that makes them very anxious. They were hoping to persuade her to see Mr. Frampton when Lady Temple heard last."
"Poor thing! it has been a sad affair for her. Well, I told you I should go over this morning and see Mr. Grey, and judge if anything could be done. I got to the Abbey at about eleven o'clock, and found the policeman had just come back after serving the summons, with the news that Mauleverer was gone."
"Clean gone! Absconded from his lodgings, and left no traces behind him. But, as to the poor woman, the policeman reported that she had been left in terrible distress, with the child extremely ill, and not a penny, not a thing to eat in the house. He came back to ask Mr. Grey what was to be done; and as the suspicion of diphtheria made every one inclined to fight shy of the house, I thought I had better go down and see what was to be done. I knocked a good while in vain; but at last she looked out of window, and I told her I only wanted to know what could be done for her child, and would send a doctor. Then she told me how to open the door. Poor thing! I found her the picture of desolation, in the midst of the dreary kitchen, with the child gasping on her lap; all the pretence of widowhood gone, and her hair hanging loose about her face, which was quite white with hunger, and her great eyes looked wild, like the glare of a wild beast's in a den. I spoke to her by her own name, and she started and trembled, and said, 'Did Miss Alison tell you?' I said, 'Yes,' and explained who I was, and she caught me up half way: 'O yes, yes, my lady's nephew, that was engaged to Miss Ermine!' And she looked me full and searchingly in the face, Ermine, when I answered 'Yes.' Then she almost sobbed, 'And you are true to her;' and put her hands over her face in an agony. It was a very strange examination on one's constancy, and I put an end to it by asking if she had any friends at home that I could write to for her; but she cast that notion from her fiercely, and said she had no friend, no one. He had left her to her fate, because the child was too ill to be moved. And indeed the poor child was in such a state that there was no thinking of anything else, and I went at once to find a doctor and a nurse."
"Yes; and she, poor thing, was in no state to give it the resolute care that is the only chance. Doctors could be easily found, but I was at my wit's end for a nurse, till I remembered that Mr. Mitchell had told me of a Sisterhood that have a Home at St. Norbert's, with a nursing establishment attached to it. So, in despair, I went there, and begged to see the Superior, and a most kind and sensible lady I found her, ready to do anything helpful. She lent me a nice little Sister, rather young, I thought; but who turned out thoroughly efficient, nearly as good as a doctor. Still, whether the child lives is very doubtful, though the mother was full of hope when I went in last. She insisted that I had saved it, when both she and it had been deserted by Maddox, for whom she had given up everything."
"Then she owned that he was Maddox?"
"She called him so, without my even putting the question to her. She had played his game long enough; and now his desertion has evidently put an end to all her regard for him. It was confusedly and shortly told; the child was in a state that prevented attention being given to anything else; but she knows that she had been made a tool of to ruin her master and you, and the sight of you, Ailie, had evidently stirred up much old affection, and remembrance of better days."
"Is she his wife?"
"No, or the evidence she promises could not be used against him. Do you know this, Ermine?" as he gave her a cover, with a seal upon it.
"The Saracen! the Saracen's head, Colin; it was made with the lost seal-ring!"
"The ring was taken from Edward's dressing-room the night when Rose was frightened with the phosphorus. Maria declares that she did not suspect the theft, or Maddox's purpose, till long after she had left her place. He effected his practices under pretence of attachment to her, and then could not shake her off. She went abroad with him after the settlement of affairs; but he could not keep out of gambling speculation, and lost everything. Then he seems to have larked about, obtaining means she knew not how—as artist, lecturer, and what not—till the notable F. U. E. E. was started. Most likely he would have collected the subscriptions and made off with them, if Rachel Curtis had not had just sense enough to trust him with nothing without seeing some result, so that he was forced to set the affair going with Maria at its head, as the only person who could co-operate with him. They kept themselves ready for a start whenever there should be symptoms of a discovery, but, in the meantime, he gambled away all that he got into his hands, and never gave her enough to feed the children. Thus she was absolutely driven to force work from them for subsistence; and she is a passionate creature, whom jealousy embittered more and more, so that she became more savage than she knew. Poor thing! She has her punishment. Maddox only came home, yesterday, too late for any train before the mail, and by that time the child was too ill to be moved. He must have thought it all up with him, and wished to be rid of both, for they quarrelled, and he left her to her misery."