At last gentlemen began to appear in twos and threes, and each made some confidence to the womankind that first absorbed him, but no one came in Rachel's way, and the girl beside her became too unfeignedly curious to support even the semblance of conversation, but listened for scraps of intelligence. Something was flying about respecting "a gentleman who came down by the train," and something about "Lady Temple" and "admirable," and the young lady seized the first opportunity of deserting Rachel, and plunging into the melee. Rachel sat on, sick with suspense, feeling utterly unable to quit her seat. Still they waited, the whole of the party were not arrived, and here was the curfew ringing, and that at the Deanery, which always felt injured if it were seven o'clock before people were in the dining-room! Grace must be upstairs dressing, but to reach her was impossible!
At last Mr. Grey was announced, and he had mercy upon Rachel; he came up to her as soon as he could without making her remarkable, and told her the cause of his delay had been the necessity of committing Mauleverer upon an accusation by a relation of Colonel Keith, of very extensive frauds upon Miss Williams's brother. Rachel's illness and the caution of the Williamses had prevented her from being fully aware of the complication of their affairs with her own, and she became paler and paler, as she listened to the partial explanation, though she was hardly able as yet to understand it.
"The woman?" she asked.
"Sentenced to a year's imprisonment with hard labour, and let me tell you, Rachel, you had a most narrow escape there! If that army doctor had not come in time to see the child alive, they could not have chosen but have an inquest, and no mortal can tell what might have been the decision about your homoeopathy. You might have been looking forward to a worse business than this at the next assizes."
Mr. Grey had done his work at last! The long waiting, the weary constraint, and at last the recurrence of Lovedy's sufferings and her own share in them, entirely overcame her. Mists danced before her eyes, and the very sensation that had been so studiously avoided was produced by her fainting helplessly away in her chair, while Mr. Grey was talking to her.
To be sure it brought deliverance from the multitude, and she awoke in the quiet of her room, upon her bed, in the midst of the despairing compunction of the mother, and the tender cares of Grace, but she was too utterly overdone for even this to be much relief to her; and downstairs poor Miss Wellwood's one desire was to hinder the spread of the report that her swoon had been caused by the tidings of Mauleverer's apprehension. It seemed as if nothing else had been wanting to make the humiliation and exposure complete. Rachel had despised fainting ladies, and had really hitherto been so superabundant in strength that she had no experience of the symptoms, or she might have escaped in time. But there she lay, publicly censured before the dignitaries of her county for moral folly, and entirely conquered before the rest of the world by the physical weakness she had most contemned.
Then the mother was so terrified and distressed that all sorts of comforting reassurances were required, and the chief object soon became to persuade her to go downstairs and leave Rachel to her bed. And at last the thought of civility and of the many Mrs. Grundys prevailed, and sent her downstairs, but there was little more comfort for Rachel even in being left to herself—that for which she had a few minutes before most ardently longed.
That night was perhaps the most painful one of her whole life. The earnest desire to keep her mother from uneasiness, and the longing to be unmolested, made her play her part well when the mother and Grace came up to see her before going to bed, and they thought she would sleep off her over-fatigue and excitement, and yielded to her desire that they should bid her good night, and leave her to rest.
But what sort of rest was it? Sometimes even her own personal identity was gone, and she would live over again in the poor children, the hunger and the blows, or she would become Mrs. Rawlins, and hear herself sentenced for the savage cruelty, or she would actually stand in court under sentence for manslaughter. Her pulses throbbed up to fever pitch, head and cheeks burnt, the very power to lie still was gone, and whether she commanded her thoughts or lapsed into the land of dreams, they worked her equal woe.
Now it was the world of gazing faces, feverishly magnified, multiplied, and pressing closer and closer on her, till she could have screamed to dispel them; now it was her mother weeping over the reports to which she had given occasion, and accusing herself of her daughter's errors; and now it was Lovedy Kelland's mortal agony, now the mob, thirsting for vengeance, were shouting for justice on her, as the child's murderer, and she was shrieking to Alick Keith to leave her to her fate, and only save her mother.
It would hardly be too much to say that the positive wretchedness of actually witnessing the child's death was doubled in these its imaginary repetitions on that still more suffering night of waking dreams, when every solemn note of the cathedral clock, every resolute proclamation from its fellow in the town hall, every sharp reply from the domestic timepiece in the Deanery fell on her ears, generally recalling her at least to full consciousness of her identity and whereabouts, and dispelling the delusion.
But, then, what comfort was there? Veritably she had caused suffering and death; she had led to the peril of Fanny's children; she had covered her mother with shame and grief! Nay, in her exaggerated tone of feeling, she imagined that distress and poverty might have been entailed on that beloved mother. Those title deeds—no intelligence. Captain Keith had taken no notice. Perhaps he heard and believed those degrading reports! He had soul enough to pity and sympathize with the failure of extended views of beneficence; he despised the hypocrisy that had made charity a cloak for a credulous debasing attachment, and to such an object! He might well avoid her! His sister had always bantered her on what had seemed too absurd to be rebutted, and, at any rate, this fainting fit would clench his belief. No doubt he believed it. And if he did, why should not every one else whose opinion she cared for: Ermine, her Colonel, even gentle Fanny—no, she would never believe any harm, she had suffered too much in her cause.
Oh, for simple genuine charity like Fanny's, with eyes clear with innocence and humility! And now what was before her? should she ever be allowed to hide her head, or should she be forced again to brave that many-eyed world? Perhaps the title-deed business would prove utter ruin. It would have been acceptable to herself, but her mother and sister!
Chastisement! Yes, it was just chastisement for headstrong folly and conceit. She had heard of bending to the rod and finding it a cross, but here came the dreadful confusion of unreality, and of the broken habit of religious meditation except as matter of debate. She did not know till her time of need how deeply sneers had eaten into her heart. The only text that would come to her mind was, "And in that day they shall roar against them like the roaring of the sea; and if one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof." Every effort at prayer or at calm recall of old thoughts still ended in that desolate verse. The first relief to these miserable dreams was the cool clear morning light, and by-and-by the early cathedral bells, then Grace's kind greeting made her quite herself; no longer feverish, but full of lassitude and depression. She would not listen to Grace's entreaties that she would remain in bed. No place was so hateful to her, she said, and she came down apparently not more unwell than had been the case for many days past, so that after breakfast her mother saw no reason against leaving her on the sofa, while going out to perform some commissions in the town, attended, of course, by Grace. Miss Wellwood promised that she should not be disturbed, and she found that she must have been asleep, for she was taken by surprise by the opening of the door, and the apologetic face of the butler, who told her that a gentleman had asked if she would see him, and presented the card of "Captain Alexander Keith."
Eagerly she desired that he should be admitted, tremulously she awaited his sentence upon her mother's peace, and, as she thought of all he must have heard, all he must believe, she felt as if she must flee; or, if that were impossible, cower in shrinking dread of the glance of his satirical eye!
Here he was, and she could not look or speak, nor did he; she only felt that his clasp of greeting was kind, was anxious, and he put forward the easy-chair, into which she sank, unable to stand. He said, "I saw your mother and sister going into the town. I thought you would like to hear of this business at once."
"Oh yes, thank you."
"I could not see the man till the day before yesterday," he said, "and I could get nothing satisfactory from him. He said he had taken the papers to a legal friend, but was not authorized to give his name. Perhaps his views may be changed by his present condition. I will try him again if you like."
"Thank you, thank you! Do you think this is true!"
"He is too cunning a scoundrel to tell unnecessary lies, and very likely he may have disposed of them to some Jew attorney; but I think nothing is to be feared but some annoyance."
"And annoyance to my mother is the one thing I most fear," sighed Rachel, helplessly.
"There might be a mode of much lessening it to her," he said.
"Oh, what? Tell me, and I would do it at any cost."
"Will you?" and he came nearer. "At the cost of yourself?"
She thrilled all over, and convulsively grasped the arm of her chair.
"Would not a son be the best person to shield her from annoyance," he added, trying for his usual tone, but failing, he exclaimed, "Rachel, Rachel, let me!"
She put her hands over her face, and cried, "Oh! oh! I never thought of this."
"No," he said, "and I know what you do think of it, but indeed you need not be wasted. Our women and children want so much done for them, and none of our ladies are able or willing. Will you not come and help me?"
"Don't talk to me of helping! I do nothing but spoil and ruin."
"Not now! That is all gone and past. Come and begin afresh."
"No, no, I am too disagreeable."
"May not I judge for myself?" he said, drawing nearer, and his voice falling into tremulous tenderness.
"Try," and his smile overbore her.
"Oh no, no, nobody can bear me! This is more than you—you ought to do—than any one should," she faltered, not knowing what she said.
"Than any one to whom you were not most dear!" was the answer, and he was now standing over her, with the dew upon his eyelashes.
"Oh, that can't be. Bessie said you always took up whatever other people hated, and I know it is only that—"
"Don't let Bessie's sayings come between us now, Rachel. This goes too deep," and he had almost taken her hand, when with a start she drew it back, saying, "But you know what they say!"
"Have they been stupid enough to tell you?" he exclaimed. "Confute them then, Rachel—dolts that can't believe in self-devotion! Laugh at their beards. This is the way to put an end to it!"
"Oh no, they would only detest you for my sake. I can't," she said again, bowed down again with shame and dejection.
"I'll take care of that!" he said with the dry tone that perhaps was above all reassurance, and conquered her far enough to enable him to take possession of the thin and still listless hand.
"Then," he said, "you will let me take this whole matter in hand; and if the worst comes to the worst, we will make up to the charity out of the Indian money, without vexing the mother."
"I can't let you suffer for my miserable folly."
"Too late to say that!" he answered; and as her eyes were raised to him in startled inquiry, he said gravely, "These last weeks have shown me that your troubles must be mine."
A hand was on the door, and Rachel fled, in time to screen her flight from Miss Wellwood, whom Alick met with his usual undisturbed front, and inquiries for Mrs. Curtis.
That good lady was in the town more worried than flattered by the numerous inquiries after Rachel's health, and conscious of having gone rather near the wind in making the best of it. She had begun to dread being accosted by any acquaintance, and Captain Keith, sauntering near the archway of the close, was no welcome spectacle. She would have passed him with a curt salutation, but he grasped her hand, saying, "May I have a few words with you?"
"Not Fanny—not the children!" cried Mrs. Curtis in dismay.
"No indeed. Only myself," and a gleam of intelligence under his eyelashes and judicious pressure of his hand conveyed volumes to Grace, who had seen him often during Rachel's illness, and was not unprepared. She merely said that she would see how her sister was, substituted Captain Keith's arm for her own as her mother's support, and hurried away, to encounter Miss Wellwood's regrets that, in spite of all her precautions, dear Rachel had been disturbed by "a young officer, I believe. We see him often at the cathedral, and somebody said it was his sister whom Lord Keith married."
"Yes, we know him well, and he is a Victoria Cross man," said Grace, beginning to assume his reflected glory.
"So some one said, but the Dean never calls on the officers unless there is some introduction, or there would be no end to it. It was a mistake letting him in to disturb Rachel. Is your mother gone up to her, my dear?"
"No, I think she is in the cathedral yard. I just came in to see about Rachel," said Grace, escaping.
Miss Wellwood intended going out to join her old friend; but, on going to put on her bonnet, she saw from the window Mrs. Curtis, leaning on the intruder's arm, conversing so confidentially that the Dean's sister flushed with amazement, and only hoped she had mentioned him with due respect. And under that southern cathedral wall good Mrs. Curtis took the longest walk she had indulged in for the last twenty years, so that Grace, and even Rachel, beholding from the window, began to fear that the mother would be walked to death.
But then she had that supporting arm, and the moral support, that was infinitely more! That daughter, the spoilt pet of her husband, the subject of her pride, even when an enigma and an anxiety, whom she had lately been forced to think of as
"A maid whom there were few to praise And very few to love,"
she now found loved by one at least, and praised in terms that thrilled through and through the mother's heart in their truth and simplicity, for that sincerity, generosity, and unselfishness. It was her own daughter, her real Rachel, no illusion, that she heard described in those grave earnest words, only while the whole world saw the errors and exaggerated them, here was one who sank them all in the sterling worth that so few would recognise. The dear old lady forgot all her prudence, and would hardly let him speak of his means; but she soon saw that Rachel's present portion would be more than met on his side, and that no one could find fault with her on the score of inequality of fortune. He would have been quite able to retire, and live at ease, but this he said at once and with decision he did not intend. His regiment was his hereditary home, and his father had expressed such strong wishes that he should not lightly desert his profession, that he felt bound to it by filial duty as well as by other motives. Moreover, he thought the change of life and occupation would be the best thing for Rachel, and Mrs. Curtis could not but acquiesce, little as she had even dreamt that a daughter of hers would marry into a marching regiment! Her surrender of judgment was curiously complete. "Dear Alexinder," as thenceforth she called him had assumed the mastery over her from the first turn they took under the cathedral, and when at length he reminded her that the clock was on the stroke of one, she accepted it on his infallible judgment, for her own sensations would have made her believe it not a quarter of an hour since the interview had begun.
Not a word had been granted on either side to the conventional vows of secrecy, always made to be broken, and perhaps each tacitly felt that the less secrecy the better for Rachel. Certain it is that Mrs. Curtis went into the Deanery with her head considerably higher, kissed Rachel vehemently, and, assuring her she knew all about it, and was happier than she had ever thought to be again, excused her from appearing at luncheon, and hurried down thereto, without giving any attention to a feeble entreaty that she would not go so fast. And when at three o'clock Rachel crept downstairs to get into the carriage for her return home, the good old Dean lay in wait for her, told her she must allow him an old friend's privilege, kissed her, congratulated her, and said he would beg to perform the ceremony.
"Oh, Mr. Dean, it is nothing like that."
He laughed, and handed her in.
"Mother, mother, how could you?" sighed Rachel, as they drove on.
"My dear, they were so kind; they could not help knowing!"
"But it can't be."
"Rachel, my child, you like him!"
"He does not know half about me yet. Mother, don't tell Fanny or any one till I have seen him again."
And the voice was so imperious with the wayward vehemence of illness that Mrs. Curtis durst not gainsay it. She did not know how Alick Keith was already silencing those who asked if he had heard of the great event at the Dean's party. Still less did she guess at the letter at that moment in writing:—
"My Dear Bessie,—Wish me joy. I have gone in for the uncroquetable lawn, and won it.—Your affectionate brother',
"A. C. Keith."
CHAPTER XXIII. DEAR ALEXANDER.
"I pray thee now tell me, for which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?"—Much Ado about Nothing.
"Alick, is this all chivalry?" inquired Colonel Keith, sitting by his fire, suffering considerably from his late drive, and hearing reports that troubled him.
"Very chivalrous, indeed! when there's an old county property to the fore."
"For that matter, you have all been canny enough to have means enough to balance all that barren moorland. You are a richer man than I shall ever be."
"Without heiress-hunting?" said Alick, as though weighing his words.
"Come, Alick, you need not put on a mask that does not fit you! If it is not too late, take the risk into consideration, for I own I think the price of your championship somewhat severe."
"Ask Miss Williams."
"Ermine is grateful for much kindness, and is—yes—really fond of her."
"Then, Colonel, you ought to know that a sensible woman's favourable estimate of one of her own sex outweighs the opinion men can form of her."
"I grant that there are fine qualities; but, Alick, regarding you, as I must necessarily do, from our former relations, you must let me speak if there is still time to warn you, lest your pity and sense of injustice should be entangling you in a connexion that would hardly conduce to make you happy or popular."
"Popularity is not my line," said Alick, looking composedly into the fire.
"Tell me first," said the puzzled Colonel, "are you committed?"
"No one can be more so."
"I thought you would have known it from themselves; but I find she has forbidden her mother to mention it till she has seen me again. And they talk of quiet, and shut me out!" gloomily added Alick.
The Colonel conceived a hope that the lady would abjure matrimony, and release this devoted knight, but in a few moments Alick burst out—
"Absurd! She cannot mend with anything on her mind! If I could have seen Mrs. Curtis or Grace alone, they might have heard reason, but that old woman of a doctor was prosing about quiet and strain on the nerves. I know that sort of quiet, the best receipt for distraction!"
"Well, Alick," said his friend, smiling, "you have at least convinced me that your heart is in the matter."
"How should it not be?" returned Alick.
"I was afraid it was only with the object of unjust vituperation."
"No such thing. Let me tell you, Colonel, my heart has been in it ever since I felt the relief of meeting real truth and unselfishness! I liked her that first evening, when she was manfully chasing us off for frivolous danglers round her cousin! I liked her for having no conventionalities, fast or slow, and especially for hating heroes! And when my sister had helped to let her get into this intolerable web, how could I look on without feeling the nobleness that has never shifted blame from herself, but bowed, owned all, suffered—suffered—oh, how grievously!"
The Colonel was moved. "With such genuine affection you should surely lead her and work upon her! I trust you will be able."
"It is less that," said Alick, rather resentfully, "than sympathy that she wants. Nobody ever gave her that except your Ermine! By-the-bye, is there any news of the brother?"
Colonel Keith shook his head. "I believe I shall have to go to Russia," he said with some dejection.
"After that, reproach one with chivalry," said Alick, lightly. "Nay, I beg your pardon. Shall I take any message down to Mackarel Lane?"
"Are you going?"
"Well, yes, though I hardly ought to venture there till this embargo is taken off; for she is the one person there will be some pleasure in talking to. Perhaps I may reckon you as the same in effect."
The Colonel responded with a less cheerful look than usual, adding, "I don't know whether to congratulate you, Alick, on having to ask no one's consent but your own at your age."
"Especially not my guardian's!" said Alick, with the desired effect of making him laugh.
"No, if you were my son, I would not interfere," he added gravely. "I only feared your not knowing what you were about. I see you do know it, and it merely becomes a question of every man to his taste—except for one point, Alick. I am afraid there may have been much disturbance of her opinions."
"Surface work," said Alick, "some of the effects of the literature that paints contradiction as truth. It is only skin deep, and makes me wish all the more to have her with my uncle for a time. I wonder whether Grace would let me in if I went back again!"
No, Grace was obdurate. Mr. Frampton had spoken of a nervous fever, and commanded perfect quiescence; and Grace was the less tempted to transgress the order, because she really thought her mother was more in love with "dear Alexander" than Rachel was. Rachel was exceedingly depressed, restless, and feverish, and shrank from her mother's rejoicing, declaring that she was mistaken, and that nothing more must be said. She had never consented, and he must not make such a sacrifice; he would not when he knew better. Nay, in some moods, Rachel seemed to think even the undefined result of the interview an additional humiliation, and to feel herself falling, if not fallen, from her supreme contempt of love and marriage. The hurry, and the consent taken for granted, had certainly been no small elements in her present disturbed and overwhelmed state; and Grace, though understanding the motive, was disposed to resent the over-haste. Calm and time to think were promised to Rachel, but the more she had of both the more they hurt her. She tossed restlessly all night, and was depressed to the lowest ebb by day; but on the second day, ill as she evidently was, she insisted on seeing Captain Keith, declaring that she should never be better till she had made him understand her. Her nurses saw that she was right; and, besides, Mrs. Curtis's pity was greatly touched by dear Alexander's entreaties. So, as a desperate experiment, he was at last allowed to go into the dressing-room, where she was lying on the sofa. He begged to enter alone, only announced by a soft knock, to which she replied with a listless "Come in," and did not look up till she suddenly became conscious of a footfall firmer though softer than those she was used to. She turned, and saw who it was who stood at a window opposite to her feet, drawing up the Venetian blind, from whose teasing divisions of glare and shade she had been hiding her eyes from the time she had come in, fretted by the low continuous tap of its laths upon the shutters. Her first involuntary exclamation was a sigh of relief.
"Oh, thank you. I did not know what it was that was such a nuisance."
"This is too much glare. Let me turn your sofa a little way round from it."
And as he did so, and she raised herself, he shook out her cushions, and substituted a cool chintz covered one for the hot crimson damask on which her head had been resting. "Thank you! How do you know so well?" she said with a long breath of satisfaction.
"By long trial," he said, very quietly seating himself beside her couch, with a stillness of manner that strangely hushed all her throbbings; and the very pleasure of lying really still was such that she did not at once break it. The lull of these few moments was inexpressibly sweet, but the pang that had crossed her so many times in the last two days and nights could not but return. She moved restlessly, and he leant towards her with a soft-toned inquiry what it was she wanted.
"Don't," she said, raising herself. "No, don't! I have thought more over what you said," she continued, as if repeating the sentence she had conned over to herself. "You have been most generous, most noble; but—but," with an effort of memory, "it would be wrong in me to accept such—oh! such a sacrifice; and when I tell you all, you will think it a duty to turn from me," she added, pressing her hands to her temples. "And mind, you are not committed—you are free."
"Tell me," he said, bending towards her.
"I know you cannot overlook it! My faith—it is all confusion," she said in a low awe-struck voice. "I do believe—I do wish to believe; but my grasp seems gone. I cannot rest or trust for thinking of the questions that have been raised! There," she added in a strange interrogative tone.
"It is a cruel thing to represent doubt as the sign of intellect," Alick said sadly; "but you will shake off the tormentors when the power of thinking and reasoning is come back."
"Oh, if I could think so! The misery of darkness here—there—everywhere—the old implicit reliance gone, and all observance seeming like hypocrisy and unreality. There is no thinking, no enduring the intolerable maze."
"Do not try to think now. You cannot bear it. We will try to face what difficulties remain when you are stronger."
She turned her eyes full on him. "You do not turn away! You know you are free."
"Turn from the sincerity that I prize?"
"You don't? I thought your views were exactly what would make you hate and loathe such bewilderment, and call it wilful;" there was something piteous in the way her eye sought his face.
"It was not wilful," he said; "it came of honest truth-seeking. And, Rachel, I think the one thing is now gone that kept that honesty from finding its way."
"Self-sufficiency!" she said with a groan; but with a sudden turn she exclaimed, "You don't trust to my surrendering my judgment. I don't think I am that kind of woman."
"Nor I that kind of man," he answered in his natural tone; then affectionately, "No, indeed I want you to aid mine."
She lay back, wearied with the effort, and disinclined to break the stillness. There was a move at the door; Mrs. Curtis, in an agony of restless anxiety, could not help coming to see that the interview was doing no harm.
"Don't go!" exclaimed Rachel, holding out her hand as he turned at the opening of the door. "Oh, mother!" and there was an evident sound of disappointment.
Mrs. Curtis was infinitely rejoiced to find her entrance thus inopportune. "I only wished just to be sure it was not too much," she said.
"Oh, mother, it is the first peace I have known for weeks! Can't you stay?" looking up to him, as her mother retreated to tell Grace that it was indeed all right.
This brought him to a footstool close beside her. "Thank you," he murmured. "I was wondering just then if it would hurt you or agitate you to give me some little satisfaction in going on with this. I know you are too true not to have told me at once if your objections were more personal than those you have made; but, Rachel, it is true, as you say, that you have never consented!"
The tone of these words made Rachel raise herself, turn towards him, and hold out both her hands. "Oh," she said, as he took them into his own, "it was—it could be only that I cannot bear so much more than I deserve."
"What! such an infliction?" in his own dry way.
"Such rest, such kindness, such generosity!"
"No, Rachel, there is something that makes it neither kindness nor generosity. You know what I mean."
"And that is what overpowers me more than all," she sighed, in the full surrender of herself. "I ought not to be so very happy."
"That is all I want to hear," he said, as he replaced her on her cushions, and sat by her, holding her hand, but not speaking till the next interruption, by one of the numerous convalescent meals, brought in by Grace, who looked doubtful whether she would be allowed to come in, and then was edified by the little arrangements he made, quietly taking all into his own hands, and wonderfully lessening a sort of fidget that Mrs. Curtis's anxiety had attached to all that was done for Rachel. It was not for nothing that he had spent a year upon the sofa in the irritably sensitive state of nerves that Bessie had described; and when he could speak to Grace alone, he gave her a lecture on those little refinements of unobtrusive care, that more demonstrative ailments had not availed to inculcate, and which Mrs. Curtis's present restless anxiety rendered almost impossible. To hinder her from constantly aggravating the fever on the nerves by her fidgeting solicitude was beyond all power save his own, and that when he was actually in the house.
Morning after morning he rode to the Homestead to hear that Rachel had had a very bad night, and was very low, then was admitted to find Mrs. Curtis's fluttering, flurried attentions exasperating every wearied fibre with the very effort to force down fretfulness and impatience, till, when she was left to him, a long space of the lull impressed on her by his presence was needful before he could attempt any of the quiet talk, or brief readings of poetry, by which he tried further to soothe and rest her spirits. He would leave her so calm and full of repose as to make him augur well for the next day; but the moment his back was turned, something would always happen that set all the pulses in agitation again, and consigned her to a fresh night of feverish phantoms of the past. He even grew distracted enough to scold Grace fraternally as the only person he could scold.
"You seem to nurse her on the principle of old Morris, the biggest officer among us, who kindly insisted on sitting up with me, and began by taking his seat upon my hand as it was lying spread out upon a pillow."
"Indeed, Alick," said Grace, with tears in her eyes, "I hardly know what to do. When you are not in the house the mother is almost as much in a nervous fever as Rachel, and it is hardly in her power to keep from fretting her. It is all well when you are here."
"Then, Grace, there is only one thing to be done. The sooner I take Rachel away the better for both her and the mother."
"Oh, Alick, you will drive them both wild if you hurry it on."
"Look here. I believe I can get leave from Saturday till Tuesday. If I can get a hearing in those two days, I shall try; and depend upon it, Grace, this place is the worst that Rachel can be in."
"Can you come out here for three whole days? Oh, what a comfort!"
And 'what a comfort' was re-echoed by Mrs. Curtis, who had erected dear Alexander to a pedestal of infallibility, and was always treated by him with a considerate kindness that made her pity Fanny for the number of years that must pass before Stephana could give her the supreme blessing of a son-in-law. Fanny, on her side, had sufficient present blessing in collecting her brood around her, after the long famine she had suffered, and regretted only that this month had rendered Stephana's babyhood more perceptibly a matter of the past; and that, in the distance, school days were advancing towards Conrade, though it was at least a comfort that his diphtheria had secured him at home for another half year, and the Colonel had so much to think about that he had not begun his promised researches into schools.
The long-looked-for letters came after a weary interval of expectation, the more trying to Ermine because the weather had been so bitter that Colin could not shake off his cold, nor venture beyond his own fireside, where Rose daily visited him, and brought home accounts that did not cheer her aunt.
Edward wrote shortly to his sister, as if almost annoyed at the shower of letters that had by every post begun to recall his attention from some new invention on the means of assaying metals:—
"I am sorry you have stirred up Keith to the renewal of this painful subject. You know I considered that page in my life as closed for ever, and I see nothing that would compensate for what it costs me even to think of it. To redeem my name before the world would be of no avail to me now, for all my English habits are broken, and all that made life valuable to me is gone. If Long and Beauchamp could reject my solemn affirmation three years ago, what would a retractation slowly wrung from them be worth to me now? It might once have been, but that is all over now. Even the desire to take care of you would no longer actuate me since you have Keith again; and in a few years I hope to make my child independent in money matters—independent of your love and care you would not wish her to be. Forget the troubles of your life, Ermine, and be happy with your faithful Keith, without further efforts on behalf of one whom they only harass and grieve."
Ermine shed some bitter tears over this letter, the more sorrowful because the refusal was a shock to her own reliance on his honour, and she felt like a traitress to his cause. And Colin would give him up after this ungrateful indifference, if nothing worse. Surely it betrayed a consciousness that the whole of his conduct would not bear inquiry, and she thought of the representations that she had so indignantly rejected, that the accounts, even without the last fatal demand, were in a state that it required an excess of charity to ascribe to mere carelessness on the part of the principal.
She was glad that Alison was absent, and Rose in the garden. She laid her head on her little table, and drew long sobs of keen suffering, the reaction from the enjoyment and hope of the last few months. And so little knew she what she ought to ask, that she could only strive to say, "Thy will be done."
"Ermine! my Ermine, this is not a thing to be so much taken to heart. This foolish philosopher has not even read his letters. I never saw any one more consistently like himself."
Ermine looked up, and Colin was standing over her, muffled up to the eyes, and a letter of his own in his hand. Her first impulse was to cry out against his imprudence, glad as she was to see him. "My cough is nearly gone," he said, unwinding his wrappings, "and I could not stay at home after this wonderful letter—three pages about chemical analysis, which he does me the honour to think I can understand, two of commissions for villainous compounds, and one of protestations that 'I will be drowned; nobody shall help me.'"
Ermine's laugh had come, even amid her tears, his tone was so great a relief to her. She did not know that he had spent some minutes in cooling down his vexation, lest he should speak ungently of her brother's indifference. "Poor Edward," she said, "you don't mean that this is all the reply you have?"
"See for yourself," and he pointed to the divisions of the letter he had described. "There is all he vouchsafes to his own proper affairs. You see he misapprehends the whole; indeed, I don't believe he has even read our letters."
"We often thought he did not attend to all we wrote," said Ermine. "It is very disheartening!"
"Nay, Ermine, you disheartened with the end in view!"
"There are certainly the letters about Maddox's committal still to reach him, but who knows if they will have more effect! Oh, Colin, this was such a hope that—perhaps I have dwelt too much upon it!"
"It is such a hope," he repeated. "There is no reason for laying it aside, because Edward is his old self."
"Colin! you still think so?"
"I think so more than ever. If he will not read reason, he must hear it, and if he takes no notice of the letters we sent after the sessions, I shall go and bring him back in time for the assizes."
"Oh, Colin! it cannot be. Think of the risk! You who are still looking so thin and ill. I cannot let you."
"It will be warm enough by the time I get there."
"The distance! You are doing too much for us."
"No, Ermine," with a smile, "that I will never do."
She tried to answer his smile, but leant back and shed tears, not like the first, full of pain, but of affectionate gratitude, and yet of reluctance at his going. She had ever been the strength and stay of the family, but there seemed to be a source of weakness in his nearness, and this period of his indisposition and of suspense had been a strain on her spirits that told in this gentle weeping. "This is a poor welcome after you have been laid up so long," she said when she could speak again. "If I behave so ill, you will only want to run from the sight of me."
"It will be July when I come back."
"I do not think you ought to go."
"Nor I, if Edward deigns to read the account of Rose's examination."
In that calm smiling resolution Ermine read the needlessness of present argument, and spoke again of his health and his solitary hours.
"Mitchel has been very kind in coming to sit with me, and we have indulged in two or three castles in the air—hospitals in the air, perhaps, I should say. I told him he might bring me down another guest instead of the tailor, and he has brought a poor young pupil teacher, whom Tibbie calls a winsome gallant, but I am afraid she won't save him. Did you ever read the 'Lady of La Garaye'?"
"Not the poem, but I know her story."
"As soon as that parcel comes in, which Villars is always expecting, I propose to myself to read that poem with you. What's that? It can't be Rachel as usual."
If it was not Rachel, it was the next thing to her, namely, Alick Keith. This was the last day of those that he had spent at the Homestead, and he was leaving Rachel certainly better. She had not fallen back on any evening that he had been there, but to his great regret he would not be able to come out the next day. Regimental duty would take him up nearly all the day, and then he was invited to a party at the Deanery, "which the mother would never have forgiven me for refusing," he said; just as if the mother's desires had the very same power over him as over her daughters. "I came to make a desperate request, Miss Williams," he said. "Would it be any way possible for you to be so kind as to go up and see Rachel? She comes downstairs now, and there are no steps if you go in by the glass doors. Do you think you could manage it?"
"She wishes it!" said Ermine.
"Very much. There are thorns in her mind that no one knows how to deal with so well as you do, and she told me yesterday how she longed to get to you."
"It is very good in her. I have sometimes feared she might think we had dealt unfairly by her if she did not know how very late in the business we suspected that our impostors were the same," said Ermine.
"It is not her way to blame any one but herself," said Alick, "and, in fact, our showing her the woodcut deception was a preparation for the rest of it. But I have said very little to her about all that matter. She required to be led away rather than back to it. Brooding over it is fatal work, and yet her spirits are too much weakened and shattered to bear over-amusement. That is the reason that I thought you would be so very welcome to-morrow. She has seen no one yet but Lady Temple, and shrinks from the very idea."
"I do not see why I should not manage it very well," said Ermine, cheerfully, "if Miss Curtis will let me know in time whether she is equal to seeing me. You know I can walk into the house now."
Alick thanked her earnestly. His listless manner was greatly enlivened by his anxiety, and Colonel Keith was obliged to own that marriage would be a good thing for him; but such a marriage! If from sheer indolence he should leave the government to his wife, then—Colin could only shrug his shoulders in dismay.
Nevertheless, when Ermine's wheeled chair came to the door the next afternoon, he came with it, and walked by her side up the hill, talking of what had been absolutely the last call she had made—a visit when they had both been riding with the young Beauchamps.
"Suppose any one had told me then I should make my next visit with you to take care of me, how pleased I should have been," said Ermine, laughing, and taking as usual an invalid's pleasure in all the little novelties only remarked after long seclusion. That steep, winding, pebbly road, with the ferns and creeping plants on its rocky sides, was a wonderful panorama to her, and she entreated for a stop at the summit to look down on the sea and the town; but here Grace came out to them full of thanks and hopes, little knowing that to them the event was a very great one. When at the glass doors of the garden entrance, Ermine trusted herself to the Colonel's arm, and between him and her crutch crossed the short space to the morning room, where Rachel rose from her sofa, but wisely did not come forward till her guest was safely placed in a large easy chair.
Rachel then held out her hand to the Colonel, and quietly said, "Thank you," in a subdued manner that really touched him, as he retreated quickly and left them together. Then Rachel sat down on a footstool close to Ermine, and looked up to her. "Oh, it is so good of you to come to me! I would not have dared to think of it, but I just said I wished to get out for nothing but to go to you; and then he—Captain Keith-would go and fetch you."
"As the nearest approach to fetching the moon, I suppose," said Ermine, brightly. "It was very kind to me, for I was longing to see you, and I am glad to find you looking better than I expected."
For in truth Rachel's complexion had been little altered by her illness; and the subdued dejected expression was the chief change visible, except in the feebleness and tremulousness of all her movements. "Yes, I am better," she said. "I ought to be, for he is so good to me."
"Dear Rachel, I was so very glad to hear of this," said Ermine, bending down to kiss her.
"Were you? I thought no one could be that cared for him," said Rachel.
"I cared more for him the week that you were ill than ever I had done before."
"Grace tells me of that," said Rachel, "and when he is here I believe it. But, Miss Williams, please look full at me, and tell me whether everybody would not think—I don't say that I could do it—but if every one would not think it a great escape for him if I gave him up."
"No one that could really judge."
"Because, listen," said Rachel, quickly, "the regiment is going to Scotland, and he and the mother have taken it into their heads that I shall get well faster somewhere away from home. And—and they want to have the wedding as soon as I am better; and they are going to write about settlements and all that. I have never said I would, and I don't feel as if—as if I ought to let him do it; and if ever the thing is to be stopped at all, this is the only time."
"But why? You do not wish—"
"Don't talk of what I wish," said Rachel. "Talk of what is good for him."
Ermine was struck with the still resolute determination of judging for herself—the self-sufficiency, almost redeemed by the unselfishness, and the face was most piteously in earnest.
"My dear, surely he can be trusted to judge. He is no boy, in spite of his looks. The Colonel always says that he is as much older than his age in character as he is younger in appearance."
"I know that," said Rachel, "but I don't think he ought to be trusted here; for you see," and she looked down, "all the blindness of—of his affection is enhanced by his nobleness and generosity, and he has nobody to check or stop him; and it does seem to me a shame for us all to catch at such compassion, and encumber him with me, just because I am marked for scorn and dislike. I can't get any one to help me look at it so. My own people would fancy it was only that I did not care for him; and he—I can't even think about it when he is here, but I get quite distracted with doubts if it can be right whenever he goes away. And you are the only person who can help me! Bessie wrote very kindly to me, and I asked to see what she said to him. I thought I might guess her feeling from it. And he said he knew I should fancy it worse than it was if he did not let me see. It was droll, and just like her—not unkind, but I could see it is the property that makes her like it. And his uncle is blind, you know, and could only send a blessing, and kind hopes, and all that. Oh, if I could guess whether that uncle thinks he ought! What does Colonel Keith think? I know you will tell me truly."
"He thinks," said Ermine, with a shaken voice, "that real trustworthy affection outweighs all the world could say."
"But he thinks it is a strange, misplaced liking, exaggerated by pity for one sunk so low?" said Rachel, in an excited manner.
"Rachel," said Ermine, "you must take my beginning as a pledge of my speaking the whole truth. Colonel Keith is certainly not fond of you personally, and rather wonders at Alick, but he has never doubted that this is the genuine feeling that is for life, and that it is capable of making you both better and happier. Indeed, Rachel, we do both feel that you suit Alick much more than many people who have been far better liked."
Rachel looked cheered. "Yet you," she faltered, "you have been an instance of resolute withstanding."
"I don't think I shall be long," murmured Ermine, a vivid colour flashing forth upon her cheek, and leading the question from herself. "Just suppose you did carry out this fierce act of self-abnegation, what do you think could come next?"
"I don't know! I would not break down or die if I could help it," added Rachel, faintly after her brave beginning.
"And for him? Do you think being cast off would be so very pleasant to him?"
Rachel hung her head, and her lips made a half murmur of, "Would not it be good for him?"
"No, Rachel, it is the very sorest trial there can be when, even in the course of providence, kind intentions are coldly requited; and it would be incalculably harder when therewith there would be rejection of love."
"Ah! I never said I could do it. I could not tell him I did not care for him, and short of that nothing would stop it," sobbed Rachel, "only I wished to feel it was not very mean—very wrong." She laid her weary head on Ermine's lap, and Ermine bent down and kissed her.
"So happy, so bright and free, and capable, his life seems now," proceeded Rachel. "I can't understand his joining it to mine; and if people shunned and disliked him for my sake!"
"Surely that will depend on yourself. I have never seen you in society, but if you have the fear of making him unpopular or remarkable before your eyes, you will avoid it."
"Oh, yes, I know," said Rachel, impatiently. "I did think I should not have been a commonplace woman," and she shed a few tears.
Ermine was provoked with her, and began to think that she had been arguing on a wrong tack, and that it would be better after all for Alick to be free. Rachel looked up presently. "It must be very odd to you to hear me say so, but I can't help feeling the difference. I used to think it so poor and weak to be in love, or to want any one to take care of one. I thought marriage such ordinary drudgery, and ordinary opinions so contemptible, and had such schemes for myself. And this—and this is such a break down, my blunders and their consequences have been so unspeakably dreadful, and now instead of suffering, dying—as I felt I ought—it has only made me just like other women, for I know I could not live without him, and then all the rest of it must come for his sake."
"And will make you much more really useful and effective than ever you could have been alone," said Ermine.
"He does talk of doing things together, but, oh! I feel as if I could never dare put out my hand again!"
"Not alone perhaps."
"I like to hear him tell me about the soldiers' children, and what he wants to have done for them."
"You and I little thought what Lady Temple was to bring us," said Ermine, cheerfully, "but you see we are not the strongest creatures in the world, so we must resign ourselves to our fate, and make the best of it. They must judge how many imperfections they choose to endure, and we can only make the said drawbacks as little troublesome as may be. Now, I think I see Miss Curtis watching in fear that I am over-talking you."
"Oh, must you go? You have really comforted me! I wanted an external opinion very much, and I do trust yours! Only tell me," she added, holding Ermine's hand, "is this indeed so with you?"
"Not yet," said Ermine, softly, "do not speak about it, but I think you will be comforted to hear that this matter of yours, by leading to the matron's confession, may have removed an obstacle that was far more serious in my eyes than even my own helplessness, willing as Colin was to cast both aside. Oh, Rachel, there is a great deal to be thankful for."
Rachel lay down on her sofa, and fell asleep, nor did Alick find any occasion for blaming Grace when he returned the next day. The effect of the conversation had been to bring Rachel to a meek submission, very touching in its passiveness and weary peacefulness. She was growing stronger, walked out leaning on Alick's arm, and was even taken out by him in a boat, a wonderful innovation, for a dangerous accident to Mr. Curtis had given the mother such a horror of the sea that no boating excursions had ever taken place during her solitary reign, and the present were only achieved by a wonderful stretch of dear Alexander's influence. Perhaps she trusted him the more, because his maimed hand prevented him from being himself an oarsman, though he had once been devoted to rowing. At any rate, with an old fisherman at the oar, many hours were spent upon the waters of the bay, in a tranquillity that was balm to the harassed spirit, with very little talking, now and then some reading aloud, but often nothing but a dreamy repose. The novelty and absence of old association was one secret of the benefit that Rachel thus derived. Any bustle or resumption of former habits was a trial to her shattered nerves, and brought back the dreadful haunted nights. The first sight of Conrade, still looking thin and delicate, quite overset her; a drive on the Avoncester road renewed all she had felt on the way thither; three or four morning visitors coming in on her unexpectedly, made the whole morbid sense of eyes staring at her recur all night, and when the London solicitor came down about the settlements, she shrank in such a painful though still submissive way, from the sight of a stranger, far more from the semblance of a dinner party, that the mother yielded, and let her remain in her sitting-room.
"May I come in?" said Alick, knocking at the door. "I have something to tell you."
"What, Alick! Not Mr. Williams come?"
"Nothing so good. In fact I doubt if you will think it good at all. I have been consulting this same solicitor about the title-deeds; that cheese you let fall, you know," he added, stroking her hand, and speaking so gently that the very irony was rather pleasant.
"Oh, it is very bad."
"Now wouldn't you like to hear it was so bad that I should have to sell out, and go to the diggings to make it up?"
"Now, Alick, if it were not for your sake, you know I should like—"
"I know you would; but you see, unfortunately, it was not a cheese at all, only a wooden block that the fox ran away with. Lawyers don't put people's title-deeds into such dangerous keeping, the true cheese is safe locked up in a tin-box in Mr. Martin's chambers in London."
"Then what did I give Mauleverer?"
"A copy kept for reference down here." Rachel hid her face.
"There, I knew you would think it no good news, and it is just a thunder-clap to me. All you wanted me for was to defend the mother and make up to the charity, and now there's no use in me," he said in a disconsolate tone.
"Oh, Alick, Alick, why am I so foolish?"
"Never mind; I took care Martin should not know it. Nobody is aware of the little affair but our two selves; and I will take care the fox learns the worth of his prize. Only now, Rachel, answer me, is there any use left for me still?"
"You should not ask me such things, Alick, you know it all too well."
"Not so well that I don't want to hear it. But I had more to say. This Martin is a man of very different calibre from old Cox, with a head and heart in London charities and churches, and it had struck him as it did you, that the Homestead had an easier bargain of it than that good namesake of yours had ever contemplated. If it paid treble or quadruple rent, the dear mother would never find it out, nor grow a geranium the less."
"No, she would not! But after all, the lace apprenticeships are poor work."
"So they are, but Martin says there would be very little difficulty in getting a private bill to enable the trustees to apply the sum otherwise for the benefit of the Avonmouth girls."
"Then if I had written to him, it would have been all right! Oh, my perverseness!"
"And, Rachel, now that money has been once so intended; suppose it kept its destination. About L500 would put up a tidy little industrial school, and you might not object to have a scholarship or two for some of our little —th Highlander lassies whose fathers won't make orphans of them for the regular military charities. What, crying, Rachel! Don't you like it?"
"It is my dream. The very thing I wished and managed so vilely. If Lovedy were alive! Though perhaps that is not the thing to wish. But I can't bear taking your—"
"Hush! You can't do worse than separate your own from mine. This is no part of the means I laid before Mr. Martin by way of proving myself a responsible individual. I took care of that. Part of this is prize-money, and the rest was a legacy that a rich old merchant put me down for in a transport of gratitude because his son was one of the sick in the bungalow where the shell came. I have had it these three or four months, and wondered what to do with it."
"This will be very beautiful, very excellent. And we can give the ground."
"I have thought of another thing. I never heard of an industrial school where the great want was not food for industry. Now I know the Colonel and Mr. Mitchell have some notion floating in their minds about getting a house for convalescents down here, and it strikes me that this might supply the work in cooking, washing, and so on. I think I might try what they thought of it."
Rachel could only weep out her shame and thankfulness, and when Alick reverently added that it was a scheme that would require much thought and much prayer, the pang struck her to the heart—how little she had prayed over the F. U. E. E. The prayer of her life had been for action and usefulness, but when she had seen the shadow in the stream, her hot and eager haste, her unconscious detachment from all that was not visible and material had made her adhere too literally to that misinterpreted motto, laborare est orare. How should then her eyes be clear to discern between substance and shadow?
CHAPTER XXIV. THE HONEYMOON.
"Around the very place doth brood A calm and holy quietude."—REV. ISAAC WILLIAMS.
The level beams of a summer sun, ending one of his longest careers, were tipping a mountain peak with an ineffable rosy purple, contrasting with the deep shades of narrow ravines that cleft the rugged sides, and gradually expanded into valleys, sloping with green pasture, or clothed with wood. The whole picture, with its clear, soft sky, was retraced on the waters of the little lake set in emerald meadows, which lay before the eyes of Rachel Keith, as she reclined in a garden chair before the windows of a pretty rustic-looking hotel, but there was no admiration, no peaceful contemplation on her countenance, only the same weary air of depression, too wistful and startled even to be melancholy repose, and the same bewildered distressed look that had been as it were stamped on her by the gaze of the many unfriendly eyes at the Quarter Sessions, and by her two unfortunate dinner parties.
The wedding was to have been quietness itself, but though the bridegroom had refused to contribute sister, brother-in-law, or even uncle to the numbers, conventionalities had been too strong for Mrs. Curtis, and "just one more" had been added to the guests till a sufficient multitude had been collected to renew all Rachel's morbid sensations of distress and bewilderment with their accompanying feverish symptoms, and she had been only able to proceed on her journey by very short stages, taken late in the day.
Alick had not forgotten her original views as to travelling, and as they were eventually to go to Scotland, had proposed beginning with Dutch reformatories and Swiss cretins; but she was so plainly unfit for extra fatigue and bustle, that the first few weeks were to be spent in Wales, where the enjoyment of fine scenery might, it was hoped, be beneficial to the jaded spirits, and they had been going through a course of passes and glens as thoroughly as Rachel's powers would permit, for any over-fatigue renewed feverishness and its delusive miseries, and the slightest alarm told upon the shattered nerves.
She did not easily give way at the moment, but the shock always took revenge in subsequent suffering, which all Alick's care could not prevent, though the exceeding charm of his tenderness rendered even the indisposition almost precious to her.
"What a lovely sunset!" he said, coming to lean over the back of her chair. "Have you been watching it?"
"I don't know."
"Are you very much tired?"
"No, it is very quiet here."
"Very; but I must take you in before that curling mist mounts into your throat."
"This is a very nice place, Alick, the only really quiet one we have found."
"I am afraid that it will be so no longer. The landlord tells me he has letters from three parties to order rooms."
"Oh, then, pray let us go on," said Rachel, looking alarmed.
"To-morrow afternoon then, for I find there's another waterfall."
"Very well," said Rachel, resignedly.
"Or shall we cut the waterfall, and get on to Llan—something?"
"If you don't think we ought to see it."
"Ought?" he said, smiling. "What is the ought in the case? Why are we going through all this? Is it a duty to society or to ourselves?"
"A little of both, I suppose," said Rachel.
"And, Rachel, from the bottom of your heart, is it not a trying duty?"
"I want to like what you are showing me," said Rachel.
"And you are more worried than delighted, eh?"
"I—I don't know! I see it is grand and beautiful! I did love my own moors, and the Spinsters' Needles, but—Don't think me very ungrateful, but I can't enter into all this! All I really do care for is your kindness, and helping me about," and she was really crying like a child unable to learn a lesson.
"Well," he said, with his own languor of acquiescence, "we are perfectly agreed. Waterfalls are an uncommon bore, if one is not in a concatenation accordingly."
Rachel was beguiled into a smile.
"Come," he said, "let us be strong minded! If life should ever become painful to us because of our neglect of the waterfalls, we will set out and fulfil our tale of them. Meantime, let me take you where you shall be really quiet, home to Bishopsworthy."
"But your uncle does not expect you so soon."
"My uncle is always ready for me, and a week or two of real rest there would make you ready for the further journey."
Rachel made no opposition. She was glad to have her mind relieved from the waterfalls, but she had rather have been quite alone with her husband. She knew that Lord and Lady Keith had taken a house at Littleworthy, while Gowanbrae was under repair, and she dreaded the return to the bewildering world, before even the first month was over; but Alick made the proposal so eagerly that she could not help assenting with all the cordiality she could muster, thinking that it must be a wretched, disappointing wedding tour for him, and she would at least not prevent his being happy with his uncle; as happy as he could be with a person tied to him, of whom all his kindred must disapprove, and especially that paragon of an uncle, whom she heard of like an intensification of all that class of clergy who had of late been most alien to her.
Alick did not press for her real wishes, but wrote his letter, and followed it as fast as she could bear to travel. So when the train, a succession of ovens for living bodies disguised in dust, drew up at the Littleworthy Station, there was a ready response to the smart footman's inquiry, "Captain and Mrs. Keith?" This personage by no means accorded with Rachel's preconceived notions of the Rectory establishment, but she next heard the peculiar clatter by which a grand equipage announces its importance, and saw the coronetted blinkers tossing on the other side of the railing. A kind little note of welcome was put into Rachel's hand as she was seated in the luxurious open carriage, and Alick had never felt better pleased with his sister than when he found his wife thus spared the closeness of the cramping fly, or the dusty old rectory phaeton. Hospitality is never more welcome than at the station, and Bessie's letter was complacently accepted. Rachel would, she knew, be too much tired to see her on that day, and on the next she much regretted having an engagement in London, but on the Sunday they would not fail to meet, and she begged that Rachel would send word by the servant what time Meg should be sent to the Rectory for her to ride; it would be a kindness to exercise her, for it was long since she had been used.
Rachel could not help colouring with pleasure at the notion of riding her own Meg again, and Alick freely owned that it was well thought of. He already had a horse at his uncle's, and was delighted to see Rachel at last looking forward to something. But as she lay back in the carriage, revelling in the fresh wind, she became dismayed at the succession of cottages of gentility, with lawns and hedges of various pretensions.
"There must be a terrible number of people here!"
"This is only Littleworthy."
"Not very little."
"No; I told you it was villafied and cockneyfied. There," as the horses tried to stop at a lodge leading to a prettily built house, "that's Timber End, the crack place here, where Bessie has always said it was her ambition to live."
"How far is it from the Parsonage?"
Which was a comfort to Rachel, not that she wished to be distant from Bessie, but the population appalled her imagination.
"Bishopsworthy is happily defended by a Dukery," explained Alick, as coming to the end of the villas they passed woods and fields, a bit of heathy common, and a scattering of cottages. Labourers going home from work looked up, and as their eyes met Alick's there was a mutual smile and touch of the hat. He evidently felt himself coming home. The trees of a park were beginning to rise in front, when the carriage turned suddenly down a sharp steep hill; the right side of the road bounded by a park paling; the left, by cottages, reached by picturesque flights of brick stairs, then came a garden wall, and a halt. Alick called out, "Thanks," and "we will get out here," adding, "They will take in the goods the back way. I don't like careering into the churchyard."
Rachel, alighting, saw that the lane proceeded downwards to a river crossed by a wooden bridge, with an expanse of meadows beyond. To her left was a stable-yard, and below it a white gate and white railings enclosing a graveyard, with a very beautiful church standing behind a mushroom yew-tree. The upper boundary of the churchyard was the clipped yew hedge of the rectory garden, whose front entrance was through the churchyard. There was a lovely cool tranquillity of aspect as the shadows lay sleeping on the grass; and Rachel could have stood and gazed, but Alick opened the gate, and there was a movement at the seat that enclosed the gnarled trunk of the yew tree. A couple of village lads touched their caps and departed the opposite way, a white setter dog bounded forward, and, closely attended by a still snowier cat, a gentleman came to meet them, so fearlessly treading the pathway between the graves, and so youthful in figure, that it was only the "Well, uncle, here she is," and, "Alick, my dear boy," that convinced her that this was indeed Mr. Clare. The next moment he had taken her hand, kissed her brow, and spoken a few words of fatherly blessing, then, while Alick exchanged greetings with the cat and dog, he led her to the arched yew-tree entrance to his garden, up two stone steps, along a flagged path across the narrow grass-plat in front of the old two-storied house, with a tiled verandah like an eyebrow to the lower front windows.
Instead of entering by the door in the centre, he turned the corner of the house, where the eastern gable disclosed a window opening on a sloping lawn full of bright flower-beds. The room within was lined with books and stored with signs of parish work, but with a refined orderliness reigning over the various little ornaments, and almost betokening feminine habitation; and Alick exclaimed with admiration of a large bowl of fresh roses, beautifully arranged.
"Traces of Bessie," said Mr. Clare; "she brought them this morning, and spent nearly an hour in arranging them and entertaining me with her bright talk. I have hardly been able to keep out of the room since, they make it so delicious."
"Do you often see her?" asked Alick.
"Yes, dear child, she is most good-natured and attentive, and I take it most kindly of her, so courted as she is."
"How do you get on with his lordship?"
"I don't come much in his way, he has been a good deal laid up with sciatica, but he seems very fond of her; and it was all her doing that they have been all this time at Littleworthy, instead of being in town for the season. She thought it better for him."
"And where is Mr. Lifford?" asked Alick.
"Gone to M—— till Saturday."
"Unable to face the bride."
"I fear Ranger is not equally shy," said Mr. Clare, understanding a certain rustle and snort to import that the dog was pressing his chin hard upon Rachel's knee, while she declared her content with the handsome creature's black depth of eye; and the cat executed a promenade of tenderness upon Alick.
"How are the peacocks, Alick?" added Mr. Clare; "they, at least, are inoffensive pets. I dreaded the shears without your superintendence, but Joe insisted that they were getting lop-sided."
Alick put his head out at the window. "All right, sir; Joe has been a little hard on the crest of the left-hand one, but it is recovering."
Whereupon, Rachel discovered that the peacocks were creatures of yew-tree, perched at either end of the garden fence. Mr. Clare had found them there, and preserved them with solicitous fidelity.
Nothing could be less like than he was to the grave, thin, stooping ascetic in a long coat, that she had expected. He was a tall, well-made man, of the same youthful cast of figure as his nephew, and a far lighter and more springy step, with features and colouring recalling those of his niece, as did the bright sunny playful sweetness of his manner; his dark handsome eyes only betraying their want of sight by a certain glassy immobility that contrasted with the play of the expressive mouth. It was hard to guess why Bessie should have shunned such an uncle. Alick took Rachel to the bedroom above the library, and, like it, with two windows—one overlooking churchyard, river, and hay-fields, the other commanding, over the peacock hedge, a view of the playground, where Mr. Clare was seen surrounded by boys, appealing to him on some disputed matter of cricket. There was a wonderful sense of serenity, freshness, and fragrance, inexpressibly grateful to Rachel's wearied feelings, and far more comfortable than the fine scenery through which she had been carried, because no effort to look and admire was incumbent on her—nay, not even an effort to talk all the evening. Mr. Clare seemed to have perfectly imbibed the idea that rest was what she wanted, and did not try to make small talk with her, though she sat listening with pleased interest to the conversation between him and his nephew—so home like, so full of perfect understanding of one another.
"Is there anything to be read aloud?" presently asked Alick.
"You have not by chance got 'Framley Parsonage?'"
"I wish I had. I did pick up 'Silas Marner,' at a station, thinking you might like it," and he glanced at Rachel, who had, he suspected, thought his purchase an act of weakness. "Have you met with it?"
"I have met with nothing of the sort since you were here last;" then turning to Rachel, "Alick indulges me with novels, for my good curate had rather read the catalogue of a sale any day than meddle with one, and I can't set on my pupil teacher in a book where I don't know what is coming."
"We will get 'Framley,'" said Alick.
"Bessie has it. She read me a very clever scene about a weak young parson bent on pleasing himself; and offered to lend me the book, but I thought it would not edify Will Walker. But, no doubt, you have read it long ago."
"No," said Rachel; and something withheld her from disclaiming such empty employments. Indeed, she was presently much interested in the admirable portraiture of "Silas Marner," and still more by the keen, vivid enjoyment, critical, droll, and moralizing, displayed by a man who heard works of fiction so rarely that they were always fresh to him, and who looked on them as studies of life. His hands were busy all the time carving a boss for the roof of one of the side aisles of his church—the last step in its gradual restoration.
That night there was no excitement of nerve, no morbid fancy to trouble Rachel's slumbers; she only awoke as the eight o'clock bell sounded through the open window, and for the first time for months rose less weary than she had gone to rest. Week-day though it were, the description "sweet day, so calm, so cool, so bright," constantly recurred to her mind as she watched the quiet course of occupation. Alick, after escorting his uncle to a cottage, found her searching among the stores in the music stand.
"You unmusical female," he said, "what is that for?"
"Your uncle spoke of music last night, and I thought he would like it."
"I thought you had no such propensity."
"I learnt like other people, but it was the only thing I could not do as well as Grace, and I thought it wasted time, and was a young ladyism; but if can recover music enough to please him, I should be glad."
"Thank you," said Alick, earnestly. "He is very much pleased with your voice in speaking. Indeed, I believe I first heard it with his ears."
"This is a thorough lady's collection of music," said Rachel, looking through it to hide her blush of pleasure. "Altogether the house has not a bachelor look."
"Did you not know that he had been married? It was when he first had the living twelve years ago. She was a very lovely young thing, half Irish, and this was the happiest place in the world for two years, till her little brother was sent home here from school without proper warning of a fever that had begun there. We all had it, but she and her baby were the only ones that did not recover! There they lie, under the yew-tree, where my uncle likes to teach the children. He was terribly struck down for years, though he went manfully to his work, and it has been remarkable how his spirits and sociability have returned since he lost his sight; indeed, he is more consistently bright than ever he was."
"I never saw any one like him," said Rachel. "I have fallen in with clergy that some call holy, and with some that others call pious, but he is not a bit like either. He is not even grave, yet there is a calming, refreshing sense of reverence towards him that would be awe, only it is so happy."
Alick's response was to bend over her, and kiss her brow. She had never seen him so much gratified.
"What a comfort your long stay with him must have been," she said presently, "in the beginning of his blindness!"
"I hope so. It was an ineffable comfort to me to come here out of Littleworthy croquet, and I think cheering me did him good. Rachel, you may do and say what you please," he added, earnestly, "since you have taken to him."
"I could not help it," said Rachel, though a slight embarrassment came over her at the recollection of Bessie, and at the thought of the narrow views on which she expected to differ. Then, as Alick continued to search among the music, she asked, "Will he like the piano to be used?"
"Of all things. Bessie's singing is his delight. Look, could we get this up?"
"You don't sing, Alick! I mean, do you?"
"We need not betray our talents to worldlings base."
Rachel found her accompaniment the least satisfactory part of the affair, and resolved on an hour's practice every day in Mr. Clare's absence, a wholesome purpose even as regarded her health and spirits. She had just sat down to write letters, feeling for the first time as if they would not be a toil, when Mr. Clare looked in to ask Alick to refer to a verse in the Psalms, quoting it in Greek as well as English, and after the research had been carried to the Hebrew, he told Rachel that he was going to write his sermon, and repaired to the peacock path, where he paced along with Ranger and the cat, in faithful, unobtrusive attendance.
"What, you can read Hebrew, Alick?"
"So can you."
"Enough to appreciate the disputed passages. When did you study it?"
"I learnt enough, when I was laid up, to look out my uncle's texts for him."
She felt a little abashed by the tone, but a message called him away, and before his return Mr. Clare came back to ask for a reference to St. Augustine. On her offer of her services, she was thanked, and directed with great precision to the right volume of the Library of the Fathers, but spying a real St. Augustine, she could not be satisfied without a flight at the original. It was not, however, easy to find the place; she was forced to account for her delay by confessing her attempt, and then to profit by Mr. Clare's directions, and, after all, her false quantities, though most tenderly and apologetically corrected, must have been dreadful to the scholarly ear, for she was obliged to get Alick to read the passage over to him before he arrived at the sense, and Rachel felt her flight of clever womanhood had fallen short. It was quite new to her to be living with people who knew more of, and went deeper into, everything than she did, and her husband's powers especially amazed her.
The afternoon was chiefly spent in the hay-field under a willow-tree; Mr. Clare tried to leave the young people to themselves, but they would not consent; and, after a good deal of desultory talk and description of the minnows and water-spiders, in whom Mr. Clare seemed to take a deep interest, they went on with their book till the horses came, and Alick took Rachel for a ride in Earlsworthy Park, a private gate of which, just opposite to the Rectory, was free to its inhabitants. The Duke was an old college friend of Mr. Clare, and though much out of health, and hardly ever able to reside at the Park, all its advantages were at the Rector's service, and they were much appreciated when, on this sultry summer's day, Rachel found shade and coolness in the deep arcades of the beech woods, and freshness on the upland lawns, as she rode happily on the dear old mare, by whom she really thought herself fondly recognised. There was something in the stillness of the whole, even in the absence of the roll and plash of the sea waves beside which she had grown up, that seemed to give her repose from the hurry and throb of sensations and thoughts that had so long preyed upon her; and when the ride was over she was refreshed, not tired, and the evening bell drew her to the conclusion most befitting a day spent in that atmosphere of quietude. She felt grateful to her husband for making no remark, though the only time she had been within a church since her illness had been at their wedding, he only gave her his arm, and said she should sit in the nook that used to be his in the time of his lameness; and a most sheltered nook it was, between a pillar and the open chancel screen, where no eyes could haunt her, even if the congregation had been more than a Saturday summer evening one.
She only saw the pure, clear, delicately-toned hues of the east window, and the reverent richness of the chancel, and she heard the blind pastor's deep musical voice, full of that expressive power always enhanced by the absence of a book. He led the Psalms with perfect security and a calm fervour that rendered the whole familiar service like something new and touching; the Lessons were read by Alick, and Rachel, though under any other circumstances she would have been startled to see him standing behind the Eagle, could not but feel all appropriate, and went along with each word as he read it in a tone well worthy of his uncle's scholar. Whether few or many were present, Rachel knew not, thought not; she was only sensible of the fulness of calm joy that made the Thanksgiving touch her heart and fill her eyes with unbidden tears, that came far more readily than of old.
"Yet this can't be all," she said to herself, as she wandered among the tall white lilies in the twilight; "is it a trance, or am I myself? I have not unthought or unfelt, yet I seem falling into a very sweet hypocrisy! Alick says thought will come back with strength. I don't think I wish it!"
The curate did not return till after she had gone to bed, and in the morning he proved to be indeed a very dry and serious middle-aged man, extremely silent, and so grave that there was no knowing how much to allow for shyness. He looked much worn and had a wearied voice, and Mr. Clare and Alick were contriving all they could to give him the rest which he refused, Mr. Clare insisting on taking all the service that could be performed without eyes, and Alick volunteering school-work. This Rachel was not yet able to undertake, nor would Alick even let her go to church in the morning; but the shady garden, and the echoes of the Amens, and sweet, clear tones of singing, seemed to lull her on in this same gentle, unthinking state of dreamy rest; and thence, too, in the after part of the day, she could watch the rector, with his Sunday class, on his favourite seat under the yew-tree, close to the cross that marked the resting-place of his wife and child.
She went to church in the evening, sheltered from curious eyes in her nook, and there for a moment she heard the peculiar brush and sweep of rich silk upon pavement, and wondered at so sophisticated a sound in the little homely congregation, but forgot it again in the exulting, joyous beauty of the chants and hymns, led by the rector himself, and, oh, how different from poor Mr. Touchett's best efforts! and forgot it still more in the unfettered eloquence of the preaching of a man of great natural power, and entirely accustomed to trust to his own inward stores. Like Ermine Williams, she could have said that this preaching was the first that won her attention. It certainly was the first that swept away all her spirit of criticising, and left her touched and impressed, not judging. On what north country folk call the loosing of the kirk, she, moving outwards after the throng, found herself close behind a gauzy white cloak over a lilac silk, that filled the whole breadth of the central aisle, and by the dark curl descending beneath the tiny white bonnet, as well as by the turn of the graceful head, she knew her sister-in-law, Lady Keith, of Gowanbrae. In the porch she was met with outstretched hands and eager greetings—
"At last! Where did you hide yourself? I had begun to imagine dire mischances."
"Only in the corner by the chancel."
"Alick's old nook! Keeping up honeymoon privileges! I have kept your secret faithfully. No one knows you are not on the top of Snowdon, or you would have had all the world to call on you."
"There are always the Earlsworthy woods," said Alick.
"Or better still, come to Timber End. No one penetrates to my morning room," laughed Bessie.
"Now, Uncle George," she said, as the rector appeared, "you have had a full allowance of them for three days, you must spare them to me to-morrow morning."
"So it is you, my lady," he answered, with a pleased smile; "I heard a sort of hail-storm of dignity sailing in! How is Lord Keith?"
"Very stiff. I want him to have advice, but he hates doctors. What is the last Avonmouth news? Is Ermine in good heart, and the boys well again?"
She was the same Bessie as ever—full of exulting animation, joined to a caressing manner that her uncle evidently delighted in; and to Rachel she was most kind and sisterly, welcoming her so as amply to please and gratify Alick. An arrangement was made that Rachel should be sent for early to spend the day at Timber End, and that Mr. Clare and Alick should walk over later. Then the two pretty ponies came with her little low carriage to the yew-tree gate, were felt and admired by Mr. Clare, and approved by Alick, and she drove off gaily, leaving all pleased and amused, but still there was a sense that the perfect serenity had been ruffled.
"Rachel," said Alick, as they wandered in the twilight garden, "I wonder if you would be greatly disappointed if our travels ended here."
"I am only too glad of the quiet."
"Because Lifford is in great need of thorough rest. He has not been away for more than a year, and now he is getting quite knocked up. All he does care to do, is to take lodgings near his wife's asylum, poor man, and see her occasionally: sad work, but it is rest, and winds him up again; and there is no one but myself to whom he likes to leave my uncle. Strangers always do too little or too much; and there is a young man at Littleworthy for the long vacation who can help on a Sunday."
"Oh, pray let us stay as long as we can!"
"Giving up the Cretins?"
"It is no sacrifice. I am thankful not to be hunted about; and if anything could make me better pleased to be here, it would be feeling that I was not hindering you."
"Then I will hunt him away for six weeks or two months at least. It will be a great relief to my uncle's mind."
It was so great a relief that Mr. Clare could hardly bring himself to accept the sacrifice of the honeymoon, and though there could be little doubt which way the discussion would end, he had not yielded when the ponies bore off Rachel on Monday morning.
Timber End was certainly a delightful place. Alick had railed it a cockney villa, but it was in good taste, and very fair and sweet with flowers and shade. Bessie's own rooms, where she made Rachel charmingly at home, were wonderful in choiceness and elegance, exciting Rachel's surprise how it could be possible to be so sumptuously lodged in such a temporary abode, for the house was only hired for a few months, while Gowanbrae was under repair. It was within such easy reach of London that Bessie had been able from thence to go through the more needful season gaieties; and she had thought it wise, both for herself and Lord Keith, not to enter on their full course. It sounded very moderate and prudent, and Rachel felt vexed with herself and Alick for recollecting a certain hint of his, that Lady Keith felt herself more of a star in her own old neighbourhood than she could be in London, and wisely abstained from a full flight till she had tried her wings. It was much pleasanter to go along with Bessie's many far better and more affectionate reasons for prudence, and her minutely personal confidences about her habits, hopes, and fears, given with a strong sense of her own importance and consideration, yet with a warm sisterly tone that made them tokens of adoption, and with an arch drollery that invested them with a sort of grace. The number of engagements that she mentioned in town and country did indeed seem inconsistent with the prudence she spoke of with regard to her own health, or with her attention to that of her husband; but it appeared that all were quite necessary and according to his wishes, and the London ones were usually for the sake of trying to detach his daughter, Mrs. Comyn Menteith, from the extravagant set among whom she had fallen. Bessie was excessively diverting in her accounts of her relations with this scatter-brained step-daughter of hers, and altogether showed in the most flattering manner how much more thoroughly she felt herself belonging to her brother's wife. If she had ever been amazed or annoyed at Alick's choice, she had long ago surmounted the feeling, or put it out of sight, and she judiciously managed to leap over all that had passed since the beginning of the intimacy that had arisen at the station door at Avoncester. It was very flattering, and would have been perfectly delightful, if Rachel had not found herself wearying for Alick, and wondering whether at the end of seven months she should be as contented as Bessie seemed, to know her husband to be in the sitting-room without one sight of him.
At luncheon, however, when Lord Keith appeared, nothing could be prettier than his wife's manner to him—bright, sweet, and with a touch of graceful deference, at which he always smiled and showed himself pleased, but Rachel thought him looking much older than in the autumn—he had little appetite, stooped a good deal, and evidently moved with pain. He would not go out of doors, and Bessie, after following him to the library, and spending a quarter of an hour in ministering to his comfort, took Rachel to sit by a cool dancing fountain in the garden, and began with some solicitude to consult her whether he could be really suffering from sciatica, or, as she had lately begun to suspect, from the effects of a blow from the end of a scaffold-pole that had been run against him when taking her through a crowded street. Rachel spoke of advice.
"What you, Rachel! you who despised allopathy!"
"I have learnt not to despise advice."
And Bessie would not trench on Rachel's experiences.
"There's some old Scotch doctor to whom his faith is given, and that I don't half believe in. If he would see our own Mr. Harvey here it would be quite another thing; but it is of no use telling him that Alick would never have had an available knee but for Mr. Harvey's management. He persists in leaving me to my personal trust in him, but for himself he won't see him at any price! Have you seen Mr. Harvey?"
"I have seen no one."
"Oh, I forgot, you are not arrived yet; but—"
"There's some one," exclaimed Rachel, nervously; and in fact a young man was sauntering towards them. Bessie rose with a sort of annoyance, and "Never mind, my dear, he is quite inoffensive, we'll soon get rid of him." Then, as he greeted her with "Good morning, Lady Keith, I thought I should find you here," she quickly replied.
"If you had been proper behaved and gone to the door, you would have known that I am not at home."
He smiled, and came nearer.
"No, I am not at home, and, what is more, I do not mean to be. My uncle will be here directly," she added, in a fee-faw-fum tone.
"Then it is not true that your brother and his bride are arrived?"
"True in the same sense as that I am at home. There she is, you see—only you are not to see her on any account," as a bow necessarily passed between him and Rachel. "Now mind you have not been introduced to Mrs. Keith, and if you utter a breath that will bring the profane crowd in shoals upon the Rectory, I shall never forgive you."
"Then I am afraid we must not hope to see you at the bazaar for the idiots."
"No, indeed," Bessie answered, respecting Rachel's gesture of refusal; "no one is to infringe her incog, under penalty of never coming here again."
"You are going?" he added to Bessie; "indeed, that was what brought me here. My sisters sent me to ask whether they may shelter themselves under your matronly protection, for my mother dreads the crush."
"I suppose, as they put my name down, that I must go, but you know I had much rather give the money outright. It is a farce to call a bazaar charity."
"Call it what you will, it is one device for a little sensation."
Rachel's only sensation at that moment was satisfaction at the sudden appearance of Ranger's white head, the sure harbinger of his master and Alick, and she sprang up to meet them in the shrubbery path—all her morbid shyness at the sight of a fresh face passing away when her hand was within Alick's arm. When they came forth upon the lawn, Alick's brow darkened for a moment, and there was a formal exchange of greetings as the guest retreated.
"I am so sorry," began Bessie at once; "I had taken precautions against invasion, but he did not go to the front door. I do so hope Rachel has not been fluttered."
"I thought he was at Rio," said Alick.
"He could not stand the climate, and was sent home about a month ago—a regular case of bad shilling, I am afraid, poor fellow! I am so sorry he came to startle Rachel, but I swore him over to secrecy. He is not to mention to any living creature that she is nearer than Plinlimmon till the incog, is laid aside! I know how to stand up for bridal privileges, and not to abuse the confidence placed in me."
Any one who was up to the game might have perceived that the sister was trying to attribute all the brother's tone of disapprobation to his anxiety lest his wife should have been startled, while both knew as well as possible that there was a deeper ground of annoyance which was implied in Alick's answer.
"He seems extremely tame about the garden."
"Or he would not have fallen on Rachel. It was only a chance; he just brought over a message about that tiresome bazaar that has been dinned into our ears for the last three months. A bazaar for idiots they may well call it! They wanted a carving of yours, Uncle George!"
"I am afraid I gave little Alice Bertie one in a weak moment, Bessie," said Mr. Clare, "but I hardly durst show my face to Lifford afterwards."
"After all, it is better than some bazaars," said Bessie; "it is only for the idiot asylum, and I could not well refuse my name and countenance to my old neighbours, though I stood out against taking a stall. Lord Keith would not have liked it."
"Will he be able to go with you?" asked Alick.
"Oh, no; it would be an intolerable bore, and his Scottish thrift would never stand the sight of people making such very bad bargains! No, I am going to take the Carleton girls in, they are very accommodating, and I can get away whenever I please. I am much too forbearing to ask any of you to go with me, though I believe Uncle George is pining to go and see after his carving."
"No, thank you; after what I heard of the last bazaar I made up my mind that they are no places for an old parson, nor for his carvings either, so you are quite welcome to fall on me for my inconsistency."
"Not now, when you have a holiday from Mr. Lifford," returned Bessie. "Now come and smell the roses."
All the rest of the day Alick relapsed into the lazy frivolous young officer with whom Rachel had first been acquainted.
As he was driving home in the cool fresh summer night, he began—
"I think I must go to this idiotical bazaar!"
"You!" exclaimed Rachel.
"Yes; I don't think Bessie ought to go by herself with all this Carleton crew."
"You don't wish me to go," said Rachel, gulping down the effort.
"You! My dear Rachel, I would not take you for fifty pounds, nor could I go myself without leaving you as vice deputy curate."
"No need for that," said Mr. Clare, from the seat behind; "young people must not talk secrets with a blind man's ears behind them."
"I make no secret," said Alick. "I could not go without leaving my wife to take care of my uncle, or my uncle to take care of my wife."
"And you think you ought to go?" said Mr. Clare. "It is certainly better that Bessie should have a gentleman with her in the crowd; but you know this is a gossiping neighbourhood, and you must be prepared for amazement at your coming into public alone not three weeks after your wedding."
"I can't help it, she can't go, and I must."
"And you will bring down all the morning visitors that you talk of dreading."
"We will leave you to amuse them, sir. Much better that," he added between his teeth, "than to leave the very semblance of a secret trusted by her to that intolerable puppy—"
Rachel said no more, but when she was gone upstairs Mr. Clare detained his nephew to say, "I beg your pardon, Alick, but you should be quite sure that your wife likes this proposal."
"That's the value of a strong-minded wife, sir," returned Alick; "she is not given to making a fuss about small matters."
"Most ladies might not think this a small matter."
"That is because they have no perspective in their brains. Rachel understands me a great deal too well to make me explain what is better unspoken."